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On 1 May, last Friday, there was a Conceptual writing symposium in Berlin in the old train depot the Uferhallen. It was part of Discover US a festival about ‘Art, jazz and lyrics in America now’ that started in January. It was also Labour day / May day, meaning annual riots in Kreuzberg (‘organized anachy’, huh?), and a Nazi gathering of 50 in Kopenick, (East Berlin) that met with an anti-Nazi demonstration of 3000. Although I didn’t hear of any major riots, there was still a total of 127 police officers injured.

Anyway, I didn’t go, I was at the Conceptual poetry symposium, but only for the morning sitting, unfortunately there was another round of papers and a reading (by Kenneth Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, Vanessa Place, and Kim Rosenfield) that evening that I was unable to attend. Below are some brief, incomplete notes on this part of the symposium (missed out on a lot of what was said).

Rob Fitterman, short introduction
Context is everything. The importance of the collectivity of community for the sharing of ideas. In the discussion following the papers Kenneth Goldsmith reiterates this with the idea of Conceptual writing as a ‘platform for conversation’. If conceptual works do not reverberate, have no after-effect, then they are of no use.

A common feature of the Conceptual poets is that they reframe existing text instead of contributing new text. Fitterman by using Google search terms, Goldsmith most radically by pure transposition of text into new context, Kim Rosenfield by creating poetry with mixed texts from various disciplines, and Vanessa Place by allowing the notion of excess to work through her poetry.

The first part of the day consisted of four short papers meant to contextualize and introduce some main points of discussion. The papers were given by Ulla Haselstein, Andrew Gross, and Catrin Gersdorf; all associated with the JFK Graduate school in Berlin. And a fourth speaker, Vanessa Place, who was the only poet in this panel.

Vanessa Place, ‘Gone With The Wind: The Cantos of Nothing’
Very beautiful paper. Part essay, part long prose poem. Instead following Goldsmith’s idea of not producing more language, because there is already more than enough, Vanessa Place explores the other option to its extreme; that of producing an excess of language.

The fact that Vanessa Place is a lawyer as well as a poet became clear in her use of legal register and information. For example, she went into great detail about someone’s death sentence last week (ironically, these are details I did not note down..). She mentions time of execution and quotes the prisoners statement, ‘I did not go into the house to kill Mrs …’.

These strings of detailed, concrete information are embedded in endless repetitions of sentences about ‘nothing’; sentences like (paraphrase, not quote); ‘it means nothing to me, you mean nothing to me, nothing is left’. A finite argument and story thus emerging from a seemingly anonymous text about nothing.

In the second half of the essay/poem the emphasis shifts from nothing to the notion of verdict/judgement. We judge, not only people on death row, but each other, all of the time.

Some quotes from Place’s text:
‘The negative capability of weeping search engines…imagination is a failure of the imagination… this I has nothing to do with you… you read me as potential, that is to say the nothing to come…I is a utility like electricity’

Ulla Haselstein, ‘On Gertrude Stein’
Bit of a disappointing reading of Gertrude Stein as a forerunner of Conceptual poetry. Talked about how Stein’s work questions labels of poetry and prose and the boundaries between the two. Mentions how Stein breaks down communication in order to focus on the materiality of the language; for example with her conceptual ‘poem’ ‘Five words in a line.’ (1930)

Discusses ‘Orange In’, from Tender Buttons as about 1. object (the orange), 2. ‘Origin’, 3. And thirdly as a poem that places ‘Orange’ in a context, that of the poem, in which it is immediately subsumed. The repetition in ‘Orange In’: ‘a no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since…’, as 1. Innocence, 2. A nonsense

Catrin Gersdorf (Berlin), ‘Objectivity and Conceptual Writing’
Asked to what extent conceptual poetry is informed by objectivity. Makes analogy to scientific methodology of enlightenment (Francis Bacon), talks about Donna Haraway’s tripartition of objectivity into: 1. Ontological: epistemological concern, 2. Mechanical (prohibition of judgement, suppression of wilful intention), 3. A-perspectival (elminating individual idiosyncrasy from moral philosophy, so not scientific objectivity, but a non-personal immersion in knowledge). For Donna Haraway objectivity is about situatedness ≠ free-floating transcendence. Social identity as a source for objective knowledge.

Gersdorf argues that Conceptual writing refurbishes objectivity not as epistemological, but as a poetic virtue. Says that ‘sobject’ (proposed in Place/Fitterman’s recent Notes on conceptualisms is still dominated by the object). Vanessa Place disagrees. Not sure what point she makes.. I think: ‘sobject’ is just a way of sidestepping the subject/object dichotomy.

Andrew Gross, ‘Prose Poems and Line Breaks. Some Limits of Verse in Modern Prosody’
Asks where the border lies between prose and poetry. Where does poetry stop and prose begin? Concluding that the book as object is the new line break.

Argues that lyrical poetry is writing that ‘pretends as if no one notices’, ‘eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard’. This is like ‘absorption’ in painting: painting as if people do not notice painter. Gross calls this ignoring of the reality of the situation by the poet, ‘insincere’ and calls transcription of conceptual poetry content neutral and a ‘lyrical poetry that has overcome insincerity’

Gross talks about David Shapiro’s notion of ‘dramatization’, poetry is absorbed into subject matter in a move away from the lyrical. And the replacement of ‘absorption’ with ‘decorum’. Gross mentions as examples: Yeats’ appropriation of a passage of Pater’s Renaissance in his 1936 anthology the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (in which a passage of prose is included as free verse. See here for enlightening quote about this by Yeats); The Waste Land as a ‘gameshow’ Marianne Moore indexing a book of poetry under subject matter (a ‘decorum’ that was incidentally, satirized in Zukofsky’s ‘Poem beginning ‘The’’ for which the index was alphabetical, instead of in the order the entries would appear in the poem, which made it nearly impossible to use; see Mark Scroggins’ biography Poem of a Life, 56).

Gross concludes that conceptual poetry fully achieves this absorption of poetry into subject matter, as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day. Day is not the same as ‘simply information’ because it is published in book form. Gross thinks the margin of the book is the new line break and that the book as artefact will continue to play an important role for poetry (and the discussion about poetry).

Vanessa Place expects this to be less so, but thinks that the book form might be maintained because in there are particular examples in which poetry might need the materiality of the page.

Kenneth Goldsmith thinks she is ‘acting her age’ and that the days of the book are over, that we are the last generation who, including himself, will place such an emphasis on the book as object. He thinks that those who grew up with internet, ‘the ‘digital natives’, will skew the entire thing beyond our imagination.’

UPDATE: Forgot an interesting note. One more point that bears mentioning: Michalis Pichler commented in the discussion following the papers that the distinction between visual arts and poetry seems reactionary to him, in the same way that the distinction between sculpture and painting used to be. Vanessa Place disagreed, Kenneth Goldsmith disagreed.

And although I find it an interesting notion to entertain, I also still see can’t help but see an essential difference between the two. The only way I see this conflation working is from the idea that everything is text, but that still is not the same as language (which in my book is still an essential and fundamental ingredient of reflection in/for poetry..).

Video poetry is perhaps a good example: video-poet Tom Konyves points to just this when he talks about what for him is the difference between video-art and video-poetry (in the comment box of this recent post on the topic by Ron Silliman, Tue. May 12).

“What differentiates videopoems from experimental (non-narrative) films is that videopoetry is based on the considered, sometimes curious juxtaposition of language (spoken or visual text) with images and sound. It is the text that drives the work; its presence is the essential link between the identifiable parts (edits or scenes). It is also the source of inspiration for the work.”

UPDATE: I neglected to put up Michalis Pichler’s full quote, which sheds a bit more nuanced light on his position:

“To insist on modernist premises and a categorical division between visual art and poetry strikes me as reactionary, as reactionary as was insisting on a categorical division between sculpture and painting around the turn of last century.”

Michalis Pichler added and specified later that, “The example of Vito Acconci was discussed, I said to me his sixties stuff is clearly visual art and poetry/writing. Kenny [Goldsmith] said that he [Acconci] by then refused to be called a poet, was exclusively directed towards the art world, and that that makes him a visual artist. I said it doesn’t matter, and today we should be able to clearly see that that was poetry (,besides maybe being something else, too).”

2 thoughts on “Brief notes on ‘Conceptual writing and its environs’, Berlin

  1. Pingback: Update Conceptual writing post « transversalinflections

  2. Pingback: Vanessa Place belly « transversalinflections

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