A note on Conceptualism

Brian Reed and Craig Dworkin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Brian Reed and Craig Dworkin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Author’s note: The following was written as the preface to the Danish edition of Notes on Conceptualisms by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place, which was published as Notater om konceptualismer by Editions After Hand (Århus, 2012).  The chronology sketched out in the preface served as the basis for my talk at the Poetry Communities conference. — Craig Dworkin

The chronology of Conceptual Writing has always been slightly out of sync. The term was coined in 2003, in the title for The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, a gallery of online works that brought together texts from the traditions of Conceptual Art, the OuLiPo, and avant-garde poetry. A printed volume, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern University Press), developed from that online collection, but would not be published for another eight years, by which time the idea behind the name had morphed. Although it used the same titular phrase (“anthology of conceptual writing”), the book presented a far more focused genre of writing than the website, and it made a diametrically opposite argument. Indeed, as became evident at the conference Conceptual Poetry and Its Others, organized by Marjorie Perloff for the University of Arizona Poetry Center in the summer of 2008, the label “conceptual writing” resonated in a peculiar way: everyone immediately seemed to know exactly what it designated, but it meant something distinctly different to everyone who took it up (the “Others” of the conference title and the plural of “Conceptualisms” — if not the allos behind the “allegory” central to Place and Fitterman’s book — all register this scope of alterity).

The topic thus had its first academic conference before it was anthologized, and its first anthology, in turn, before it had developed an in-house journal. While one can retrospectively trace emergent tendencies back to occasional issues of certain periodicals — Chain (edited by Juliana Spahr and Jenna Osman), Object (ed. Fitterman and Kim Rosenfield), Nypoesi (ed. Paal Bjelke Andersen), the poetry section of The Brooklyn Rail (ed. Mónica de la Torre), and et cetera — the first soi-disant “journal of conceptual writing,” Riccardo Boglione’s Crux Desperationis, did not publish its premier issue until 2011. To be sure, the venerable Poetry magazine had included a portfolio in its summer 2009 issue, pitting Flarf in a fixed fight against Conceptual Writing, but with only a half-dozen authors (Fitterman and Place) included it merely hinted at rather than offer any kind of clear or comprehensive definition. By the same token, Kenneth Goldsmith had publicly tested the phrase in a report for the Poetry Foundation in 2007, but there it appears as just one term among others, with “uncreative writing,” “information management,” and the “unboring boring.” With a second major anthology, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place) forthcoming, the surprising chronology is worth reiterating.

Against the expectations established by most literary movements, the initial presentation of the work under the sign of “conceptual writing” — the appearance of poetry as conceptual writing — followed not only its first academic conference but also its first critical monograph, Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, published in 2010. Notes on Conceptualisms thus entered the debate, in 2009, with an epic timing belied by its diminutive format: in medias res, and with a strangely belated prolepsis. The title (“notes on” rather than “notes toward”) implies subsequence, but in many ways it came before the establishment of the subject it would seem logically to follow. This history adds another wrinkle to the curious chronology of “conceptual writing,” but more importantly it means that Notes simultaneously shaped the field it purported to describe, substantively remolding the subject on which it seemed to coldly comment. Notes traces the swirl of a further circle of recursive influence and inflorescent reference.

If the response to previous avant-gardes is any indication, the wider reception of Conceptual Writing will swing between a focused roll call of clubby signatories and a meaningless inclusiveness. First will come the anxiously pointed demand for a clear definition: what is Conceptual Writing? Second, threatened conservatives will dismiss it as nothing new, or they will disingenuously ask whether all writing isn't conceptual. Then, the reverse swerve will try to sidestep definitions altogether by merely naming names: conceptual writers are those in a certain anthology, or on a certain listserv (or in the Appendix to Notes …). Finally, the reaction will veer back broadly again as otherwise incompatible poetics absorb various surface techniques (cataloguing, reframing, appropriating, etc.): one will start to hear explanations like “I’m kind of a conceptual writer” or “This is my conceptual poem.” The remarkable sweep of Notes on Conceptualisms manages to provoke and preempt all of these phases at once, and this purview was possible, perhaps, only because of the chance moment at which Notes was published — a brief wink in which “Conceptual Writing” had apparently always long been practiced, and yet had still not quite commenced. That world will not always be the case.


Following the publication of the Danish edition of Notes on Conceptualisms, the publication of I’ll Drown My Book provided an opportunity to consider questions of gender, community, and Conceptualism in more detail. The following briefly outlines the argument of the conclusion of my talk at the Poetry Communities conference.

A comparison between the two soi-disant anthologies of “Conceptual Writing” is instructive for understanding the vagaries of the term. Against Expression includes about thirty women, fourteen of whom are also included in I’ll Drown My Book (the other sixteen, presumably, could all have been included as well). The converse, however, does not hold true; very few of the works included in I’ll Drown My Book would have qualified for the editorial criteria used by Against Expression — most would have been considered to be “too creative.” Rather than scold us for sexist exclusions, I’ll Drown My Book confirmed the integrity of our inclusions. Of all the contributions to I’ll Drown My Book, there are only two I regret omitting — Hannah Weiner’s Code Poems (which we had in fact considered) and Rosemarie Waldrop’s mashups of Wittgenstein sentences, which we overlooked. Only a scant handful of others could even have been possibilities. Had we pursued the poetics of heteronyms, like those used by Fernando Pessoa, we would certainly have included Erin Mouré. We might well have chosen Sarah Dowling instead of Jen Bervin as an example of the technique of “writing through” a source-text. Similarly, we might have chosen Wendy Walker instead of John Cage as an example of mesostics.

The discrepancies between the anthologies are a projection of the different ways the two books organize their textual communities around a certain name. Against Expression started with a descriptive poetics and a very narrow definition, isolating a certain kind of text to which the name “Conceptual” was assigned. In contrast, I’ll Drown My Book seems to have started with the name, to which it deliberately adduced a proliferation of quite different kinds of texts. So where the burden for Against Expression is to explain what else might have been included, the burden for I’ll Drown My Book is to explain what conceivably might not have been included. In both cases, the literary communities established by these anthologies rely on exclusion (gender in one case, kinds of subjective creativity in the other). Those exclusions are worth remembering, because what ultimately defines anthologies — like all communities — is not what they embrace and contain, but what they exclude or omit. Communities depend upon the logic of the scapegoat.

Poetry isolation and collective clumsiness

An antonymic exploration

Maria Damon

“Poetry Communities and THE Individual Talent” — if THE individual talent is that of T. S. Eliot, then why am I here? If including the definite article is not intended by the conference organizers to actually describe anyone or anything, I can be more comfortable, but in general the antonymic is my preferred mode: isolation instead of community, collectivity instead of individuality, and clumsiness instead of talent. But “collectivity” doesn’t quite do it; it’s too purposeful and suggests focused endeavor. It might be more interesting to consider a surround of creativity, or uncreative, haphazard, epiphenomenal creativity, an environmental aura of spasmodic restlessness without clear agency, as a model for a poetics that erodes any lingering traces of Eliotic attachment to talented individualism. Although, it must be conceded that his wistfulness for disappearance into a personality-less tradition — albeit because of his overwhelming sense of personality — resonates with Michel Foucault’s (and John Keats’s and Jack Spicer’s) observation that the writer disappears into writing.

“Tradition,” by which Eliot meant the Western literary canon, has been wisely reconceived here as the folksier and pluralized “poetry communities.” There are, indeed, traditions comprising paraliterary heritage, but they are largely anonymous and hence more interesting. But the individual talent? The invidious talon? The toxic infection? Talent’s etymology alone qualifies it for suspicion, as its travel from weight to currency to penchant to giftedness solidly implicates it in the world of commodities, while Eliot’s use of the word as metonymic for “person” or “poet” overdetermines its status as alienated labor, an extraction of one appealing and desired resource from the “standing-reserve” of the populace in exchange for prestige, professional advancement, reification as a name, and so forth. 

Why resurrect this embodiment of an outmoded literary ambition almost half a century after Foucault wonders whose multiple and anonymous murmurs waft him downstream on the history of discourse? Individual talent is the corpse of the dross — Shelley or Orpheus bobbing along in the celestial stream of anonymity — solidifying on the surface of molten metal. The corpse itself is a cenotaph, marking some deeper and more diffuse locus of creative activity, until itself sinks, a Lycidas body without a place and a place without a body: in other words, a poem? The poem/object, like the individual talent, floats on unfathomable oceanic murmurs. Foucault writes:

I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices … I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; … I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck. 

Is he echoing Eliot’s desire to disappear into an institutionalized discourse — tradition — without having to reckon with it as a cultural formation? Or is he yearning for a greater anonymity? I would like to think so, given that his touchstone is consistently Beckett. “What does it matter who is speaking?” asks the happy wreck floating on the boundless poem of the sea. This drunken boat is first Rimbaud and then Foucault, linked by a queer outsiderhood that is still a subject of hysterical concern even though these two figures are safely crucial to the Western cultural canon. Foucault’s voice borne along by the murmur is the individual talent floating above his antecedents, but he and Rimbaud both disavowed their individual talents — the poet by abandoning poetry and disappearing from the poetry community, Foucault both by disappearing into the community of anonymous sex and through his radically anti-individualist writing.

What can be said about this intertextual dérive, the voice of the poet as flotation device suspended above the larger poem of anonymity? In the one case, the voice is the boat, tossed and torn, delirious with its abject power, borne along the surface of the oceanic poem. It is not the poem itself, but the poet who utters the poem transcribed for our reading pleasure, though indebted to the larger, inarticulable poem, the maternal sea, for its form-shattering impulses — regardless of the nature of the tamed-down lines traced on the page. Rimbaud revels in his insignificance, but not really; his voice is that brilliance that lives to tell the tale, or dies into the murmuring language that engulfs and speaks through him.

The word murmur, through its m’s, connects la mer, the sea, and la mère, the mother; the proto-sinaitic alphabet uses the glyph for “water” to indicate the “m” sound; the M’s humps represent waves visually even as the word “murmur” onomatopoetically performs water’s trickling, rushing, or lapping at the shore, the waves forming a skirt, or a mother’s lap overlapping with dry land. Both poets know they owe their stature to anonymous antecedents, to the vast communities of word-users who go unrecognized. Foucault was committed to the complexities of non-canonical historical actors and events; Rimbaud “liked absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naive rhythms” — in other words, bad and anonymous art. Both of them owe their creative lives to the primordial slime of collective clumsiness.


Clumsiness is by far the most interesting antonym put in play by the conference’s title (even more than isolation) so it’s worth spending a little more time on it than the other, less nuanced options. The incommensurability of one’s desires and ambitions when graphed against one’s abilities is one definition of “punk” — having strong aspirations that one lacks the competence to achieve. The punk aesthetic was known for its faux-stupid affect and its rejection of technical display, its affirmation of crudeness and dissonance as positive signifiers. Punks made clumsiness cool. Can there be a clumsy poetics? As many of you know, doggerel is a favored scholarly topic for me.

Charles Bernstein:

 So be a girly man

 & sing a gurly song

 Take a gurly stand

 & dance with a girly sarong

 Adeena Karasick:

 You are a militant Islamist

 Which makes the world really pissed.

 Iggy Pop:

 Can I come over — tonight? Can I come over — tonight?

 What do you think I want to do? That’s right.

 And we will have a real cool time tonight.


This, of course, is a knowing clumsiness, one used to great effect for pathos, humor, or teenaged lust. Nonetheless, studies of stupidity (Avital Ronell), failure (Judith Halberstam), and discomfort (Sianne Ngai) have valuable lessons for poetry scholarship.

Works by individual and talented poets (who were certainly part of poetry communities) like Jack Spicer’s “The Dancing Ape” and Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” thematize isolation as well as physical or verbal clumsiness; in Spicer’s poem, the poet/ape dances clumsily around happily entwined couples, who despite their comfort in each other’s arms “feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.” The second half of the almost-sonnet wonders what might happen if one of the other creatures were to reach out to him. The final word is “kiss,” a delayed off-rhyme of “loneliness.” However, just as cross-stitching, once a beginner’s activity, is now considered a quaint and precious art, Spicer perceives his own elevation through poetry, remarking in a later poem, “an ape /
Is likely (presently) to be an angel.” However, “the Dancing Ape,” an early poem (1949), is far more “improved” and craft-conscious than his later sublime stutterings. He became a better poet as his work grew clumsier, lonelier, and less invested in redemption.

Clumsy: from a Scandinavian word meaning too numbed from the cold to be able to properly coordinate one’s movements. In other words, clumsiness isn’t inherent but circumstantial. Talent, too, could be disentangled from the notion of agential individuality, and reconceived as a diffuse environmental surround. Such a concept could provoke an ecopoetics that questions the necessity for human catalytic activity. Anthropologist Stuart McLean has proposed a non-human creativity that inheres in the interactions between organic and inorganic elements that includes both human and non-human movements and activities. An interviewer in an online supplement to the journal Cultural Anthropology characterizes McLean as “[w]orking outside the Western habit of binarization that locates creativity in a lively ‘culture’ distinct from a dead ‘nature.’” In contradistinction to this stark dualism, McLean points to an “experimental, multi-agentive and pluralistic” notion of creative processes centered on “the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations.” Tellingly, it is through imaginative literature — read as poetry and storytelling, including an account of literary attention to the city of Venice — that McLean hypothesizes “the participation of human acts of imagining and fabulation in the processes shaping and transforming the material universe.” And McLean in turn cites Tim Ingold, another anthropologist, whose book, Lines: A Brief History, has much to say to poets (as well as map makers, geographers, musicologists, walkers, talkers, and so forth). Ingold argues that “materiality can be more suggestively and less anthropocentrically engaged by focusing not on objects, which are always in some sense already culturally specified, but on substances and their transformations.” In other words, the slow decay or buildup of chemical incursions on materials, the repurposing of made objects and their eventual disintegration, their long lives, from pre- to post-object or commodity status, not only instantiates a poetics but leads me also to ask, “What would the long life of a poem be, beyond the banalities of a ‘publication history’?” The etymology of each word, the graphic history of each letter, the poem’s peregrinations in every volume, in every translation, the provenance of the rags or other plant matter from which the paper was made that it was first printed on and the recycling plant it ends up in after being deascensioned from a provincial library that once had one hip librarian, the dyestuffs of the inks and their histories, and so forth ad infinitum. Because such projects are impossibly vast, they work better when left as suggestions. Cecilia Vicuña’s short film from the 1980s, What is Poetry To You?, in which she asks this question of poets as well as a variety of street people in Bogota, must inspire further versions of itself; Darren Wershler’s concept of “findables,” poetic materials that are left in their raw state rather than be transfigured by “professional” poets, promises similar unboundedness.

Clumsy is also, of course, the Yiddish-based “klutzy” which, though almost homophonic and certainly homonymous, has a different etymology, that of “klots ‘clumsy person, blockhead,’ lit. ‘block, lump,’ from M.H.G. klotz ‘lump, ball.’ Cf. Ger. klotz ‘boor, clod,’ lit. ‘wooden block’ (cf. clot). From the insensate by external conditions to the putatively insensate by nature, the lumpen stays below the low, incapable of acting on its own behalf (i.e. unuseful for any ‘revolution’).” The klutz finds her apotheosis in Charles Bernstein’s long poem “The Klupzy Girl,” in which she is so lacking that she doesn’t even merit a proper spelling of her lack. But she is the muse, the Mona Lisa, of his prodigious output, and she is an artist in her own inadequacies. I should have called this “Collective Klutziness” for its Yiddish-bundt overtones — fingers numb’d from overwork in the needle-arts/shmatte trade, labor s/heroes who died in Triangle fire and rose to make eccentric verse — .

Clumsiness as beginner’s mind rather than expert talent (referencing here Kaia Sand’s Jacket2 blog entry on inexpert investigation) as well as our earlier observations about the letter M): In thinking about the alphabet as a starting place, and in particular the doggerel that accompanies primers (“a is for apple,” etc), there’s no better place to find a display of beginner’s clumsiness than the cross-stitch sampler, which for several hundred years in Euro-American history marked a girl’s entry into semi-literate domestic labor and religious obedience. I’m sure you’ve all seen these samplers: the alphabet, a set of single-digit Arabic numerals in a few different “fonts,” perhaps a religious rhyme, a couple of birds and/or a floral wreath with a patterned border, all executed in a series of tiny or gross crosses arranged pixel-like to form the images. Initially, samplers (from exemplum, an example to be followed) comprised a variety of stitches to be used for later reference. Often they were the first thing a girl-child learned to make, though the extant samplers we now have, dating at the earliest from 1598, were made at about ages eight to fourteen. The girls’ lessons then evolved to include not only stitchery but, as noted, basic alpha-numeric and religious subjectification à la Althusser. The cross-stitch is the simplest stitch to execute, and of course it repeatedly reinscribes, in crudest simplicity, the primary symbol of virtuous self-sacrifice that is the organizing trope of Western civilization. It’s made on open-weave linen or wool cloth that makes the stitching easier: counting threads — two per stitch — ensures that the crosses will be of uniform size and hence look less clumsy. The cross is made on the diagonal, athwart the standard Cartesian grid weave of the cloth, thus suggesting some tension working against the simple x/y duality. But clumsiness underwrites the entire enterprise: simplicity, lack of coordination, the stringency of the don’t-color-outside-the-lines discipline. In its increasing obsolescence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the necessity to hand-make and decorate cloth declined, and counted cross-stitch became, on the one hand, a leisure pursuit for middle-class European women, and on the other, a merely disciplinary, non-utilitarian training for children in orphanages: genteel servitude or brutal servitude, ornamentation or abasement … The tradition of handwork is linked, through the sampler, to traditions of literacy as an interpellative discipline. As Pat Crain points out in The Story of A, “the cross secures the alphabet’s place in institutional power, helping to embody its regimes in the child through repetitive physical gestures” (22).

More recent, non-Christic iterations of the X have emphasized erasure rather than the raised presence of the martyr’s scar on the surface of the s(k)in-tissue. Malcolm X assumes a universality through repudiation of an identity, a gesture Kamau Brathwaite echoes in his X-Self, and which invokes the many literary, cultural, and personal projects that have worked to either performatively mask, eradicate, abandon, or only partially efface a standing textual (or otherwise embodied) entity to call attention to injustice, invisibility, incompleteness, etc. as a gesture of activism or antinominianism; of autonymism, of anonymity. Ex stands for expatriate or ex-partner, exposition, exhibition, exit. It’s a cartwheel across/pinned to a griddy surface, so wrong it’s write. X’s spikes get caught in M’s diaphanous caresses, trapped in her maybe-benign web, willy-nilly, the poet tipsied about on a smooth-turbulent surface-depth.

And so forth.

Once mastered, basic alphabetic literacy combined with the easiest stitch on the coarsest material can be soothing, subtly creative, satisfying, and occasionally defiant (see Hester Prynne, poet and artist). The current “subversive cross-stitch” trend, like the “stitch and bitch” trend, isn’t really subversive in any politically or culturally meaningful way, but as anonymous girly stuff of the first order, it is potentially poetic. Plus it’s a supremely sociable activity.

In an agonal chiasmus disguised as a happy ending, girls learning to make patriarchal Xs and boys happily drowning in maternal Ms find that their activities overlap in the expanse of Anonymous’s capacious body — in her lap,where they sit for hours absorbing the voice that is poetry to them.

Appendix I

The Dancing Ape
Jack Spicer

The dancing ape is whirling round the beds

 Of all the coupled animals; they, sleeping there

 In warmth of sex, observe his fur and fuss

 And feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.

 Quaint though the dancer is, his furry fists

 Are locked like lightning over all their heads.

 His legs are thrashing out in discontent

 As if they were the lightning’s strict embodiment.

 But let the dancing stop, the apish face go shut in sleep,

 The hands unclench, the trembling legs go loose —

 And let some curious animal bend and touch that face

 With nuzzling mouth, would not the storm break

 And that ape kiss?


Appendix II (from Online Etymology Dictionary)

lap (n.)
O.E. læppa (pl. læppan) “skirt or flap of a garment,” from P.Gmc. *lapp- (cf. O.Fris. lappa, O.S. lappo, M.Du. lappe, Du. lap, O.H.G. lappa, Ger. Lappen “rag, shred,” O.N. leppr “patch, rag”), from PIE root *leb- “be loose, hang down.” Sense of “lower part of a shirt” led to that of “upper legs of seated person” (c.1300). Used figuratively (“bosom, breast”) from late 14c.; e.g. lap of luxury, first recorded 1802. From 15c.–In 17c. the word (often in plural) was a euphemism for “female pudendum,” but this is not the source of lap dance, which is first recorded 1993.

lap (v.1)
“take up liquid with the tongue,” from O.E. lapian “to lap up, drink,” from P.Gmc. *lapajanan (cf. O.H.G. laffen “to lick,” O.S. lepil, Du. lepel, Ger. Löffel “spoon”), from PIE imitative base *lab- (cf. Gk. laptein “to sip, lick,” L. lambere “to lick”), indicative of licking, lapping, smacking lips. Meaning “splash gently” first recorded 1823, based on similarity of sound. Related: Lapped; lapping.

lap (v.2)
“to lay one part over another,” early 14c., “to surround (something with something else),” from lap (n.). Figurative use, “to envelop (in love, sin, desire, etc.)” is from mid-14c. The sense of “to get a lap ahead (of someone) on a track” is from 1847, on notion of “overlapping.” The noun in this sense is 1670s, originally “something coiled or wrapped up;” meaning “a turn around a track” (1861) also is from this sense. Related: Lapped; lapping; laps.

On small press publishing

Teresa Carmody.
Teresa Carmody.

There are three things I want to tell you about publishing and community.


Increasingly, I see publishing as the act of making language public. That action may result in a book, a broadside, a postcard, a wall installation, or an audio tour. In any case, it results in something that can be experienced away from the body of the “writer.” Publishing includes curation and framing. Always. If I print 100 copies of my beautiful new poem, and pass these poems out to you, then I am publishing within a frame. There is the size of the paper, the color, the font, the layout. The method of delivery. I pass a single sheet of paper out to you at an academic conference. I may send several sheets of paper in the mail, paper that is perfect bound, trimmed, covered, and called a book. I may sell that book to you at the AWP book fair, at LitFest Pasadena, or at a reading. I may put a postcard in that book, a postcard printed with a line from a poem by Jennifer Karmin, and when you send that postcard in the mail, you help me publish too.

Les Figues publishes books. We also curate events, which we often record. We have worked in other capacities too. We have participated in extended residencies and/or collaborations with other organizations, such as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Metabolic Studio.

There is more to say, but let me conclude this first point here: the form of the publication affects the content, and distribution is part of the form.


On the subject of community: I like the idea of community, but the idea of community requires the obedience or consent of its members. Community is made through agreement. People agree to a set of values; they agree to enforce those values as a community. The community is considered good. The pursuit of the ideal is considered good. When a group has an idea of “good” as something abstract and separate from individual actions, then individuals may begin to act in perfectly horrible ways and call it good. They may act horribly in the name of good, and so language becomes violent.

We must consider both ideas and actions. Theory and praxis. She may say she loves the people, but how does she treat the folk? (Another question: who does she count amount the folk?)

In the lovely, beautiful world of poetry, community is an ideal. Poets love their communities; we are at a conference about emergent communities. Community has both an economic value and a social value. For poets, the ability to speak the discourse of community is a career asset.

Community is often the most that we have. Community is a feeling. And I like to feel.


The mission of Les Figues is not to publish per se, but to create conversations between readers, writers, and artists. Publication creates one kind of conversation between a reader and a writer. There are other conversations too, and I consider all of these to be the work — the idea and practice — of Les Figues.


1. Confirm time and format with Q.E.D. writers/participants Lincoln Tobier, Brian Teare, and Michael du Plessis.

2. Fill orders. Pick postcard to include in package. Consider the purchase and which other book they may like.

3. Talk to Melissa Buzzeo about her performance on violence and community at Naropa. Oh, it sounds like it was very good!

4. April, current intern, coming in today. She really likes to hand-make books and use the spiral-binding machine. Perfect. 

5. Go to Metabolic Studio. Meet with Terence and Janet about distribution of Preserving a Home for Veterans. Finish preparing cover files, and give files to Larry for making plates. Double check that plates came out good. Double check Larry’s make-readys. Figured out that Larry printed about a quarter of a million sheets in order to make this book.

6. Yes, Coco and Matias. Let’s standardize the comma format.

7. Interview interns, along with board member Amy Hood.

8. Hire summer interns. Super excited about this upcoming group.

9. Read Elizabeth Hall’s edits of Trisha Low’s introduction to Lividity. Wonderful, Elizabeth. Wonderful, Trisha.

10. Continue.

This paper was presented at the Emergent Communities conference, University of California, Santa Cruz, May 4, 2012, at 2:30 p.m.

'Unsayable secrets' of diaspora's bodily history

Of the many recognitions that rush to mind as I read NourbeSe Philip’s thirst-quenching essay, the boldest is the memory of a woman who, at a gathering of writers and scholars not many years ago asked me, in a hotly confidential tone, “but, Mecca, do black people really read?” She was a white woman much older than me, one who I knew, and who was very comfortable with her own relationship to words. Three facts about that moment burst forward as I read “Wor(l)ds Interrupted”: that I do not remember how I responded to the question, that I felt a furious block in my throat and body at its asking, and that the fury of that silence has shaped my dealings with language since.

Philip’s essay names that fury, gives it flesh, and lays out its work in the world. “Wor(l)ds Interrupted” breaks down the silence that surrounds black diasporic letters, and links it to a fleshy history that acts, moves, and speaks today. Black language, she shows, is written in ambivalence — in a vexed relationship to a form of expression that on one hand, no matter its purposes, “is always doing another function … proving your personhood,” and that on the other hand, extends from a history in which literacy itself is illicit, illegal, and dangerous. By remapping Caribbean history onto the corporeal, kinetic dimensions of Afrodiasporic experience, she shows how the fury of silencing abides within black language, and how any response — “literate” or otherwise, “legible” or not — is a railing against History’s continuing violences against Afrodiasporic humanity.

Here, this railing takes shape in the linguistic reconstruction of history’s body, and the forms through which histories can be told. Philip concurs with the logic of scholars like Kamau Brathwaite who, as she puts it, “insists thatwe do not speak in iambic pentameter   nevrhavnevrwill   that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks …” Yet for Philip, Caribbean language’s resistance to Western literary conceits is a form in itself, one that “explodes” the meaning of linguistic/literary form by highlighting its inseparability from motion, movement, and corporeality. Thus, to Ezra Pound’s pantheon of legible poetic structures (which includes melopoeia as the influence of music, phanopoeia as the presence of the visual, and logopoeia as the place of memory in poetic hermeneutics), Philip demands that we “add kinopoesis” to account for the movements and experiences of bodies as a central presence in black diasporic literary texts.[1] Scratching past Pound’s prescriptive notions of “How to Read,” Philip reveals “a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin” of Afrodiasporic history. This poetics of movement reconfigures Pound’s “ordering of language” by subsuming each of its elements into the black body. It reveals the literate within black music, rewrites visual iconography of blackness, and does its work through and upon history’s persistent memory.

Philip’s kinopoeia is the dangerous, unspoken answer to the question of “How to Read” black language and literacy. It is the voice within what appears as black silence, a voice that, in its supposed illiteracy or illegibility, articulates the “unspeakable” places of death, violence, and impossible humanity in the living history of the African diaspora. Caribbean syncretic languages; black readers’ ambivalence toward the vexed necessity of literature; and black writers’ noncomformity to “the yambic pant pant panta meter” (a phrase that links the privileging of iambic pentameter to both the erotic and reproductive commodification of black bodies and the breathless silencing of black people) are all parts of Afrodiasporic unwriting of Western form.

Philip approaches this unwriting by recreating history as a craft tool. History, in Philip’s cartography, is both person and persona, figure and form. Taking as her point of departure the moment of Europe’s contact with Africa, when “History stopped dead in its tracks … took a deep breath then continued changed forever,” she opens space for another vision of History, one in which its use as a proper noun can reflect not only its Western imperial authority, but also its status as a character capable of choice, and of change. Like diasporic letters, this History is ambivalent, ambiguous, and inextricably linked to the body. Through an authoritative third-person voice, we are presented with the image of “the blank indifferent face,” but are also met with that face’s ability to “reflect … the linguistic distortions of the kari basin” and the diaspora.

Through this kinopoetic personification, Philip’s History can outreach third-person narrative authority and be absorbed into Philip’s first-person black woman voice. Her story begins as competing “scripts and histories” clash around the Caribbean,

Exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked
against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead …   here History stopped
dead in its tracks   hiccupped   took a deep breath then continued changed

tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption    of eruption
and irruption   from explosion and plain ole ruckshun  so    I was thinking  
to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the
experience    (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in
syncopated time)   a second violence   it retraumatizing in today’s tongue  
so   the contradictions hanging right out there

When Philip’s ungendered, past-tense History stops “dead in its tracks,” it gives way to a woman figure, who “tries her tongue” at speaking history into the present tense. This female voice is an “irruption” into a dominant masculinist, patriarchal narrative of imperialism, separated from its former self by a full (though fractured) line of white space, but proceeding along the horizontal plane of the page nearly without pause. The feminine voice of History quickly becomes Philip’s own narration, as, speaking through History’s first person, she explains linguistic violence against Caribbean people from her perspective as a black Caribbean woman — a speech act that corrects the very historical miswriting it names.

By subsuming History’s body into a black female voice tuned against hegemonies of form, Philip draws connections between historical linguistic violences and those violences’ most silenced objects — black women’s bodies. She creates a History whose “tongue” works not only against white linguistic dominance, but also as “a tributary that can contain the blachisseuse  the washer woman  the higgler the jamette  the obeah woman and  mad bad black witches   a tributary coming from dis place    the space between      /me myself and i ’n i …” In eschewing mono-vocal narration, disavowing the primacy of pentameter, and toppling the sacred “order” of European language, she makes space not only for what Brathwaite calls “the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean,” but also for black womanhoods silenced by imperialism and patriarchy alike.[2] Her irruptive poetics hails the quick-talking woman “higgler” (a British term used to describe market traders in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean); the defiant “blachisseuse” (from “blanchisseuse,” a term for French washer-women and the name of the village in former French colony Trinidad notoriously impossible to settle because of its corrugated terrain); and the simultaneous sexual autonomy and sexual objectification of the “jamette,” which Philip defines elsewhere as “A ‘loose’ woman, a woman of loose morals whose habitat is the street” (so called for “jambette,” the French term for “legs” or “leggy”).[3] All these figures become part of the multivocal chorus of “mad bad black” women from whose perspective Philip’s first-person voice re-speaks the history of black diasporic language.

As she turns to locate her own work in history’s maelstrom of misreadings of blackness, Philip’s voice becomes the voice of all these figures, and of the free-moving legs, elusive tongues, and unconquerable bodies they hail. And if we understand “dis place the space between” as Philip does in her groundbreaking essay of that title, as the space between black female legs, we see the way of Philip’s words as a “tributary” to unvoiced diasporic histories coming straight from their capacious, inaudible, furious sources. Or, more precisely, from black women’s wor(l)ds themselves.

So, with Philip’s closing reminder of the unspeakable erasure of black linguistic being “today,” I feel invited to read all this as the answer to that conference participant’s throat-choking question. The question of whether black people “really read” is a question of whether black people in the diaspora really write, really speak, or should bother to — a question about whether black languages can exist and matter in History’s grand scheme. To all of these questions, Philip delivers a guttural “yes,” unmissable and unmistakable by those who care to learn to hear it.




1. See Ezra Pound, How to Read (New York: Haskell House, 1971), 25–26.

2. See Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice (London: New Beacon Books, 1984), 260.

3. See NourbeSe Philip’s “Dis Place The Space Between” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Christianne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 290.

Is 'Zong!' conceptual poetry? Yes, it isn’t.

M. NourbeSe Philip. Photo by A. L. Nielsen.

In Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, I discuss at length Harryette Mullen’s book-length blues epic, Muse & Drudge. Mullen is an African American poet whose work has been unreservedly embraced across a range of audiences as exemplary of black innovative poetics. Muse & Drudge — along with others of her books — is taught in courses designed to illuminate modernist and postmodernist genealogies within US poetry and, likewise, in courses surveying the tradition(s) of African American poetry. My analysis of Muse & Drudge identifies and problematizes the tendency for both of these contexts to produce (differently) skewed readings of this complex, polyvocal text. Especially of concern here, in the context of NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant and urgent meditation “Wor(l)ds Interrupted,” is the pattern I noted in which critics who are focused on avant-garde poetics are disposed to highlight the blues as a source of the “content” — including language and ethos — of Mullen’s text, while centering the treatment of its experimental structures and its innovative impulses around her readily acknowledged interest in Gertrude Stein’s work. I hoped that, by juxtaposing Muse & Drudge with other African American women’s innovations upon the epic tradition, my discussion of it would bring to the foreground the extent to which African American literature and culture not only constitute subject matter, but also motivate and generate many of the unusual formal gestures and principles that make the poem so irrepressibly alive and intellectually provocative.

Philip’s essay addresses an analogous issue, one that clearly troubles her. Just as Mullen’s experimentation is sometimes portrayed as indebted to Stein, Oulipo, and Language poetry in ways that downplay or distort important legacies of African American innovation upon which she draws, Philip has seen her most recent work, the book-length poem Zong!, claimed for the category of conceptual poetry in conversations that divorce it from the postcolonial Caribbean traditions with which her poetics are equally — or perhaps even more — engaged. She associates this move, in her own elliptical style, with similar ones made in other aesthetic contexts, in which the influence of European-originated formal devices, like iambic pentameter, are discussed in terms of their relative influence upon the work of a Derek Walcott or a Kamau Brathwaite. Instead, she suggests, these poets “tempt” or “resist” the traditional English meter, an active engagement in which their poetics alter the form as much as the inverse; she invites us to hear the rhythms of calypso and the “brathwaitian current” of “nation language” running through the “yambic pant pant panta meter” that the encounter between English and “kari basin” prosody engenders. As to Zong!’s relationship to conceptual poetry in particular, she recognizes the affinities between them: “erasure of the author     apparent appropriation of found text     working within a rigidly defined set of rules    its composition is inextricably linked to the computer.” But, she insists, “you lose something” by reading her work solely through that frame — something that underlies and emerges within the text that she calls “spiritual,” for lack of a more satisfying term.

Philip insists upon the importance of ritual in “afrosporic” work like Zong! that is fundamentally connected to our sensual, embodied experience of the wor(l)d: “there is very little space to speak of the ritual function of poetry …     which comes out of a particular extended historical moment that is the kya kya kya kari basin   a moment that extends into the present    is resonant     am tempted to say     redolent     with aspects of ritual and spirit.” These ritual enactments of spirituality in the “kari basin” are vitally connected for her with the survival of African cultural and spiritual practices that slavery and colonization tried to destroy. Emphasizing the way such practices hid themselves in plain sight, Philip asks: “is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work?” Perhaps. As Édouard Glissant has asserted, “We demand the right to opacity.”[1] But if so, the decision to use the conceptual as “mask” for the ritual should not be discounted, but instead treated as an equally important element of the poem.

I totally understand and appreciate Philip’s argument that her goals for the poem and its achievements exceed the boundaries of “conceptual work,” as such work is typically described in avant-garde poetry circles. Her resistance to having Zong! reduced to a “purely” cerebral, wholly process-oriented work is in part a refusal to perpetuate the familiar paradigm in which black writing is instrumentalized as a means of “proving your personhood.”[2] Additionally, this resistance marks the vital significance of the poem’s dual (at least) impulses: Zong! enacts a critique, but also effects a catharsis or, more accurately, works through a problem that lies at the intersection of the emotions, the psyche, and the soul, if such a thing can be spoken of in the twenty-first century’s secular spaces. Bearing these points firmly in mind, I want to argue for the importance, nonetheless, of continuing to situate Zong! in the conversation about conceptual poetry. As indicated by the title of the powerful little volume by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, the contours of conceptual poetry are still very much in flux. The visibility of a work like Zong! within the field of vision of this debate may push critics and scholars to work beyond notions of “pure” and “impure” commitments to certain rigidly process-based notions of conceptualism, to develop a working definition that can accommodate broader, more (w)holistic approaches. The OED reminds us that while the current definition of “conceptual” focuses entirely on the brain — “of, pertaining to, or relating to mental conceptions or concepts” — a now obsolete definition of “concept,” as a transitive verb, evoked the (female) body’s reproductive capacity — “to conceive (in the womb)” — which suggests a connection that the related word “conceive” still invites us to make. Place and Fitterman make a space for this argument (without necessarily making this argument) in their Notes:

7a1. If conceptual writing is considered as representation, it must be considered as embodied. As embodied, it must be considered as gendered. As gendered, it must be considered. Race is also a consideration. Consideration is what is given to complete the acceptance of any contractual offer. The social contract hinges on such embodied considerations.[3]

That a poem highlights the raced and gendered body, as such, then, need not automatically expel it from the realm of “conceptual work.”

But Philip’s writing pushes us to take the question one step further, to ask whether conceptual poetry can embrace not only mind and body, but the third thing — call it “spirit” or “soul” — that calls for and is nurtured by ritual. Jay Wright has this to say about the risk Philip takes in following her vision in this direction, in the afterword to his poem The Double Invention of Komo:

A poet who has a theory of existence, in which spirit and vision matter — one, in which, like Bambara, he conceives of society as a living, articulated body, where all parts have complementary roles in constant relation — must inure himself to the sneer in his audiences’ voices. They believe him enthralled to something static, immature, and exotic. The creative ground this poet finds in ritual can at best be tolerated.[4]

The poet risks this misapprehension because of the vital importance of her work: “as the truly guiding sensibility of [her] community, [she] continually leads the way in recreating the progressive forms of the communal myth.”[5] Zong! is in this like work by other innovative black poets in the “(k)new world” — such as Anne Spencer’s garden poetry, Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing serial Song of the Andoumboulou, Will Alexander’s Exobiology as Goddess, and, of course, Wright’s Double Invention of Komo — insofar as this poetry is similarly — visionarily — concerned with metaphysical questions or issues of cosmology. In my recent essay on Zong!, I deliberately included a close reading of one of the poems, in order to open the discussion of the text to elements therein that a focus exclusively on the concept and process of its creation may not be able to adequately illuminate.[6] The emergence and particularities of the work’s “spiritual” facets are among those I attempted to engage (though not explicitly under that heading). Future close readings that critics will, I hope, perform, should enable us to think productively about what the aleatory aspects of Philip’s process make space for in spiritual terms.

Let the concept of the “kari basin” be a model for the concept of (a) “conceptualism”: a “site of massive interruptions,” where “scripts and histories jam up against each other creating trough and mountain       in shake and shudder shimmy fault lines adjust themselves attempting to fix History and free the future.”



1. Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189. Jonathan Monroe gets credit for reminding me of Glissant’s formulation when he quoted it on the May 20, 2012, podcast of PoemTalk.

2. Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s essay “Notes on Conceptualisms,” in the book of the same title, introduces the discourse of “purity” into their discussion (see, e.g., 16). Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2010).

3. Ibid., 35.

4. Jay Wright, The Double Invention of Komo (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 112.

5. Here Wright quotes Isadore Okpewho, from his paper “Principles of Traditional African Art.”

6. Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage,” in “American Poetry, 2000–2009,” ed. Michael Davidson, special issue, Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 791–817.