'How I got ovah'

Humor and discontent in women's poetry of the Black Arts Movement

Tom Fisher, Jessyka Finley, and Joshua Kotin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Tom Fisher, Jessyka Finley, and Joshua Kotin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Against the dynamic backdrop of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the black liberation struggle was moving from Civil Rights to the Black Power era, a sense of responsibility propelled artists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians to use “their public voices to address the nature, aims, ends, and arts of the black world.”[1] The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a movement in letters in which ethics and aesthetics converged to confront and tear down what Larry Neal called “the Euro-American cultural sensibility.”[2] Poetry, especially when publicly performed, served as a driving mechanism in this cultural, political, and aesthetic confrontation. In fact, Neal called poetry “a concrete function, an action […] transformed from physical objects into personal forces.”[3] With the goal of cultivating a new, “authentic” blackness, poetry was an embodied imagery and linguistic repertoire that promoted critical thinking and heightened political consciousness, and attempted to incite the black urban masses to revolutionary action via aesthetic practices that lauded the unapologetic use of black vernacular styles “that challenged hegemonic and racist White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.”[4]

Poetry was a cultural weapon for BAM aestheticians. Literary scholar Darryl Dance remarked on black militant humor of the 1970s: “Writers […] express their bitterness and deep disillusionment with a vengeful, demonic, mad comedy that is bizarre, grotesque, perverse, terrible, sardonic, absurd.”[5] Some of the humor, however, was subtle and understated in a way that made BAM poetry nuanced and sophisticated. More specifically, humor was a resource that enabled BAM women poets to express the negative emotions they felt as a result of the racial conditions in America, the political silence they endured on account of their race and gender, and the weariness generated from this combination — and to have these emotions taken seriously. The primary issues at stake in BAM women’s poetry I want to explore in this essay are the discourse of black women’s subordination regarding their participation in social/political movements, and black women’s problematic public image versus how she saw it.

This paper is less concerned with the ways in which the black woman was subordinated or represented in BAM poetry, and more with how she publicly articulated this image and carved out her role within a field marked by gender rhetoric that rendered her always already in a subordinate position. More specifically, I argue that BAM women poets used poetry infused with humor as a platform to respond to prevailing racist and sexist attitudes. Poetry was a space where imagination and “truth” collided; practitioners wrote life as they saw it, and as they envisioned its possibilities. Framing this study is black women’s use of humor to reach beyond subordination. I will look at two poems, one by Nikki Giovanni and one by Carolyn Rodgers, that highlight the social efficacy of humor in BAM women’s poetry.

Humor and discontent

The poets of this study enact what Patricia Yaeger calls “redemptive language games,” using humor to construct “an emancipatory relation” to traditions they were often excluded from or maligned in, or to simply represent themselves unrestrainedly. Humor was a resource that facilitated the uptake of women poets’ expressions of discontent. Feminist scholars have noted the political consequences of dismissing the significance of women’s negative emotional expressions, especially anger, bitterness, and more recently, contempt. Sue Campbell, for example, brings attention to a group of negative emotions associated with women that she calls “diseases of the affections.” Diagnoses of bitterness, sentimentality, and emotionality, Campbell argues, silence women who, once diagnosed, are no longer taken seriously, “limiting their effects on the world.”[6]

Campbell proposes a “theory of affect,” in which women secure uptake through direct engagement with their expressions of negative emotions and publicly convey significance using a range of socially acquired and interpretable resources, securing responses frequently enough that meaning can be formed.[7] By its very nature, BAM women’s humorous poetry — most of which was written to be publicly performed using vernacular styles — can be understood in terms of a theory of affect that facilitates uptake of black women’s discontent. As Macalester Bell points out, women’s negative emotions are given uptake in limited circumstances. As opposed to actual interactions that would prompt women to express and have negative emotions engaged — for example, a woman who brings her car in to a male mechanic who performs an unnecessary repair — Bell argues that greeting cards and joke books are spaces where “women’s contempt is perfectly intelligible.”[8] She warns, though, that the man-bashing jokes in greeting cards and joke books are “objects of low-brow amusement,” and their uptake is seized by only a narrow range of women consumers, to whom the books and cards are marketed.[9]

However, we should seriously consider black women’s humorous poetry as a space where their expressions of discontent are directly engaged, precisely because of the reach of their literary work at the height of the BAM; 199 books of poetry were published between 1968–1976, more than any period before it.[10] In addition, as Bell points out, negative emotions are “intelligible and given a certain amount of uptake” in humor.[11] As a creative resource, humor permitted BAM women poets to wield more power than would be possible in other modes of expression.

The sexual mountain

Calvin Hernton notes the 1960s and ’70s as one of the most prolific periods of black women’s literary achievement, but ironically, it was also the time in which they were publicly maligned in the most bigoted ways. Hernton cites as an example Stokely Carmichael’s infamous pronouncement in 1965 that, “The only position in the revolution for women is prone!,” along with a host of vignettes that demonstrate black men’s general masculinist and phallocentric philosophies in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Hernton describes them as “the mortar and bricks out of which the mountain of sexism is constructed both before and on top of black women.”[12] Amiri Baraka, the most visible figure in the BAM, encouraged black men and women to behave in traditional “African” gender roles arguing, “We do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women […] we could never be equals […] nature has not provided thus.”[13] It is against, and on top of, this sexual mountain that Nikki Giovanni and Carolyn Rodgers produced the works to be discussed.

Ego tripping

Popularly and politically demonized as castrating matriarchs and/or irresponsible mothers usurping public funds, by the beginning of the 1970s, black women had borne the brunt of problematic stereotypes that were at the center of representations of the broken-down black family.[14] That year, however, Nikki Giovanni brazenly glorified black women as the mothers of the great world civilizations in her poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” Originally written for little girls as a counter-narrative to traditional gender roles instilled through children’s games,[15] the poem, which was an unmistakable commentary on Langston Hughes’s 1921 “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,”[16] became a captivating celebration of black womanhood that invested them “with the power to (re)make history.”[17]

When Giovanni performed the poem publicly on her first recorded album Truth Is On Its Way (1971), it was with a subtle, rich, comic voice backed by the driving beat of drums and handclaps, with calls from the audience of “Yeah, Right On!” The poem reads:

   I sowed diamonds in my back yard

    My bowels deliver uranium

 the filings from my fingernails are

 semi-precious jewels

 On a trip north

 I caught a cold and blew

    My nose giving oil to the arab world[18]

The speaker transforms the waste products of everyday life — bowel movements, fingernail clippings, and mucus — into assets, an inversion of the racialized and gendered abjection historically projected onto black women’s bodies. The black woman becomes more than merely a disposable laborer who builds up the wealth of the nation and the world with her body. Instead, the world’s riches are located directly within her. The abject — those parts of the body and its functions that seem alienable — reappears, transformed into objects that can be manipulated and controlled.[19] The speaker playfully, sarcastically, and audaciously invents and locates the wealth of the world within her body, unmasking an alternative vision that brings forth smiles to black women listening to the new narrative of the origin of wealth. Even though the poem has a celebratory tone, part of the positive feelings it evokes emanates from an underlying humor steeped in contempt, a robbery of the status quo that briefly frees black women from its constraints.[20]

Contempt is distinguished as an expressive emotion, according to Macalester Bell, by a particularly unpleasant affective regard for and psychological withdrawal from the object of contempt, based on a judgment that the contemptible person has failed to meet an interpersonal standard, and marked by a positive self-feeling that holds the “contemptor” as superior to the object of contempt.[21] Giovanni’s speaker boasts, “For a birthday present when he was three / I gave my son hannibal an elephant / He gave me rome for mother’s day / My strength flows ever on.” The objects of contempt here are white men who are traditionally cast in the roles of great historical figures. Later her target is black men, who during the BAM attempted to constrain the gender roles and voices of black women. Here, black women are cast as Gods: “I turned myself into myself and was / jesus / men intone my loving name /All praises All praises / I am the one who would save.” The speaker laughs in the face of the hegemony of Western and black nationalist religious rhetoric. As Giovanni retells historical narratives with black women as the central figures, her inversion humor is not only a crucial expressive resource that obliquely cloaks her contempt, but also an enactment of emotional insubordination in which Giovanni claims moral superiority, “indicat[ing] [her] refusal to obey sexist norms and constraints.”[22]

Giovanni is what Tony Bolden calls a “secular priestess,” she who possesses the ability to use her “magical art to promote healing by infusing sensations of freedom into the consciousness of her listeners, stimulating them to convert feelings into new realities.”[23] “Ego Tripping” is a public and politically conscious effort to encourage black women to “revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from the margin to center.”[24]

Carolyn Rodgers

Besides confronting the sexist and racist practices of black and white men, BAM women poets aimed their critiques at black women, especially to explore generational antagonisms. The 1970s saw a younger generation of black women, militant and anti-white, attempt to break away from the more traditional ideals of black womanhood anchored by the Civil Rights discourse of the politics of respectability. Carolyn Rodgers’s poem “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, or It Must Be Deep (an epic pome)” is an autobiographical dialogue and reading of black women’s humor[25] that represents the ruptures in the relationship between traditional mother and radical daughter. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” incarnates Patricia Yaeger’s notion of the “honey-mad woman,” a strategic discursive position “in which the woman writer appropriates language ‘racked up’ in her body and starts to sing.”[26]

Specifically, Rodgers constructs a liberatory relation to Civil Rights political rhetoric and the constraining politics of respectability emanating from its prevailing social demands. She highlights the conflict between the older generation of black people tied to the Christian, middle-class, respectable Civil Rights Movement and the younger generation of activists who had more radical ideals of what black liberation meant and how it could be achieved. Rodgers employs what Yaeger terms “subversive multivoicedness,” a dialogic structure that has the power to “subvert past silences and refashion the terms of a repressive discourse.”[27]

 In the poem, Rodgers’s mother attempts in vain to convince her daughter that the Bible can heal not only her sick body, but her mind too, and that not all white people are evil. She tells her, “in yo heart you know it’s true.” Rodgers shoots back wryly “(and I sd) / it must be d / eeeep,” to which her mother replies, “U gon die and go tuh HELL.” Rodgers’s quips back are filled with a defiance that performs the distance between her generation of self-possessed, radical black women and those who came before — respectful, obedient daughters who would not dream about back-talking their mothers: “and I sd / I hoped it wudn’t be NO HUNKIES there / and she sd / what do you mean, there is some good white people and some / bad ones, just like there is negroes / and I says I had neva seen ONE (wite good that is).”[28]

In this conversation, we see Rodgers’s contempt for “hunkies,” as well as for her mother, couched in the context of playful if uncomfortable banter. Her insult establishes her feelings of superiority over white people, and the act of “sassing,” or talking back to her mother, signals the moral chasm that has grown between herself and her mother. Moving the conversation along, Rodgers continues to narrate a dialogue between her mother’s outdated views on Christianity, insisting on demonstrating that she has grown and transformed, that her version of black womanhood is better and freer than her mother’s, with her unfailing belief in a white, Western Christian doctrine. Rodgers uses “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” to demonstrate to her black audience (including her mother) that “systems of oppression preclude relationships of mutual respect and engagement between oppressors and oppressed.”[29]

she sd, I got tuh go so I can git up early tomorrow

and go tuh the social security board to clarify my

 record cause I need my money.

 Work hard for 30 yrs. and they don't want tuh give me

$28.00 once every two weeks. 
               I sd yeah …

 don’t let em nail u wid no technicalities

 git yo checks … (then I sd)

     catch yuh later on jesus, I mean motha!



                                                     It must be


                                                                     deeeeep ….[30]

Rodgers sarcastically indexes her mother’s struggles and contrasts them with those of Jesus’s redemptive suffering, acknowledging the mettle, yet fruitlessness of her “working hard for 30 yrs.” Inevitably, her mother meets the same sacrificial fate as Jesus — both are “nailed wid […] technicalities.” Rodgers takes her mother’s blind faith in the Bible to its logical end. Her unwavering belief in a government that refuses to make good on its promises, leaves her faithful but broke. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” exposes the absurdity of her mother’s complicity in her own oppression; as she jokingly calls her Jesus, Rodgers unmasks Christianity, the Bible, and the American political system as illusory symbols from which black people must extract their blind faith if they are to move to a new social and political order.

Absurdist humor and sarcasm are effective resources to think through how women of different generations might come to understand each other’s experiences within the context of the shifting social and political landscape of the 1970s. Rodgers’s inversion of the authority figure in the mother/daughter relationship is played out through the sassy way in which she addresses her mother. This exchange is the locus of the comic scene in “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED.” Inversion, or, as John Limon puts it, “the resurrection of your [mother] as your child,”[31] is a functional, pedagogical resource in Rodgers’s poetry.


Black women often occupied liminal positions in the BAM, at once committed to the struggle for black self-determination and working against sexist oppression within the movement. In addition, they grappled with conflicts between their own ideals of radical politics and aesthetics and the outdated standards of womanhood expected of them by the women they most respected, their mothers. The act of poetically naming and renaming themselves forced BAM practitioners and their audiences to rethink the terms of revolution, as both a collective movement and individual occasions for consciousness-building. Humor was an essential component in Giovanni’s poetic masterpiece, which, overall, reclaimed the past via a clever remix of black nationalist feminist aesthetics,[32] blues poetics, and re-presentations of Western narratives. Carolyn Rodgers’s work elaborates on the intra-group humor amongst black women, using familiar rhythms of black speech, inversion, and absurdist techniques as mechanisms for communicating and working through complicated emotions and political agendas. For her it was “a way of saying the truth that hurt with a laugh.” Humor was a creative expressive resource and a performative labor in which black women poets not only survived conditions in which they were systematically marginalized, but thrived as writers and political activists. Humor directly and obliquely confronted racial and sexual oppression, functioning for some black women to “keep from crying and killing … [to] educate … [to] correct the lies told on them, and ultimately to bring about change.”[33]



1. Cheryl Clarke, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 21.

2. Larry Neal, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (New York: Morrow, 1968, 1968), 55–57.

3.Neal, Black Fire, 58.

4. Clarke, “After Mecca,” 2.

5. Darryl Dance, “Wit and Humor in Black American Literature” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1971), 229.

6. Sue Campbell, “Being Dismissed: The Politics of Emotional Expression,” Hypatia 9, no. 3 (Summer 1994), 49.

7. Campbell, “Being Dismissed,” 55.

8. Macalester Bell, “A Woman’s Scorn: Toward a Feminist Defense of Contempt as a Moral Emotion,” Hypatia 20, no. 4, Analytic Feminism (Autumn 2005), 87.

9. Bell, “A Woman’s Scorn,” 87.

10. Clarke, “After Mecca, 19.

11. Ibid.

12. Calvin Hernton, “The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers,” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 4 (Winter 1984), 139–42.

13. bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York: South End Press, 1999), 95.

14. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” United States Department of Labor, Washington, DC: GPO, 1965.

15. Barbara Reynolds, And Still I Rise: Interviews with 50 Black Role Models (Washington: Gannett New Media Services, 1988), 94.

16. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Langston Hughes’s first poem published in The Crisis, in 1921. Its simple, elegant narrative style evoked a sense of proud black heritage, in which the ancient is connected to the present. Like Hughes, Giovanni idealizes Africa as the origin of human civilization. Giovanni, like Hughes, uses markers of a glorious African past — the Congo, the sphinx, pyramids — and links them directly to the richness and depth of contemporary black life. The speakers in both poems are black agents in the creation of civilization; the pyramids stand as a representation of it. Blackness becomes a proxy for humanity in each poem and Africa stands at the center of its manifestations. Each poem’s final line demonstrates the invariable relationship between humanity and nature. Hughes firmly roots humanity in the earth, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” while Giovanni’s speaker finds humanity in the ability to move from it and within it, “like a bird in the sky.”

17. Clarke, “After Mecca,” 120.

18. Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” in The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996), 92.

19. John Limon, Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 4.

20. Freud called this kind of humor “tendentious” in his important monograph Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: that which allows the humorist to express negative emotions in a way that allows for catharsis without the threat of violent retribution. The two main types of tendentious jokes described by Freud are hostile and obscene. As he explains, tendentious jokes “make possible the satisfaction of an obstacle that stands in its way. They circumvent this obstacle and in that way draw pleasure from a source which the obstacle had made inaccessible.” Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), 100–101.

21. Bell, “A Woman’s Scorn,” 83–84.

22. Ibid., 81.

23. Tony Bolden and Jayne Cortez, “All The Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez,” African American Review 35, no. 1 (Spring 2001), 69.

24. Ibid., 66.

25. Clarke, “After Mecca,” 69.

26. Patricia Yaeger, Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women’s Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 28.

27. Ellen E. Berry, “Polysemy and Playfulness,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 22, no. 2 (Winter 1989), 221.

28. Carolyn Rodgers, “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, or It Must Be Deep,” in How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974), 9.

29. Bell, “A Woman’s Scorn,” 86.

30. Rodgers, “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED,” 74.

31. Limon, Stand-Up Comedy In Theory, 4.

32. Kimberly N. Brown conceptualizes black nationalist feminism as a hybrid of nationalist and feminist discourses that “resulted from awareness … of the intersectionality between gender, race, and class.” Brown, Revolutionary Diva: Women’s Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 2010), 73.

33. Daryl C. Dance, Honey Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1998), xxii.

Flipped poetics and the resources (such as they are) of the academy

Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

For Jessica Lowenthal and Chris Mustazza
and in memory of Bob Lucid

Author’s note: This paper was delivered informally, mainly for the purposes of provoking a discussion. As such, this should read more or less as it was presented orally.


I don’t generally see contradictions between poetry and community (to use a phrase from the title of Steven Yao’s paper to be given later), but my topic is academic politics and “clearing a space” for poetic communities inside the institution known for both Panopticism and look-the-other-way-ism (or head-in-sand-ism). So I will have to say something about contradictions first before I get a little happier.

If the space for the poetic community is not a priori characterized by caste, class, or sect — by sectarianism based on level or function — then the poetics of the group can carry on successfully for quite a while before the barriers get erected. But the university is not typically, alas, such an uninhibited community; its scholasticist caste system predates the entry of innovative poetic modes into it. The differences between and among its variously admitted members are a priori true. It’s not a matter, as it were, of degree. The question is whether the institution is capacious enough, or can be discerned as capacious enough, to enable intentional, non- or quasi-academic spaces in which the caste system is checked at the door.

Let me be a little more specific and describe one of the contradictions at most US universities — and I apologize in advance for the bluntness of this. Undergraduate tuition and funds raised from contributions of philanthropic former undergraduates pay for humanities graduate fellowships in programs that tend to produce acts of specialization and professionalization that exclude undergraduates. This constitutes, to my mind, one of the most regressive aspects of the university today. I want to argue that the preprofessionalism of the doctoral program in the academy — at least at the poetry-and-poetics end of that realm — should be fully conceded and frankly embraced. Or it should be fully suppressed, which is to say not so much worried over. Any middle ground there affords us the much-too-easy opportunity, at any point, either to bemoan our fate as under-served impractical advocates of the aesthetic or to roll up our sleeves and contend for resources and centrality, but to be able to choose moodily between those two dispositions anywhere and anytime we like.

MFA programs and poetics-specific doctoral programs participate in this specific form of regressive institutionalization, and contribute to the overall effect of self-marginalization. They make understaffing, underfunding and sometimes outright defunding crises far worse than they would be otherwise, especially at some very large institutions that, if left to their own devices, would pay no heed, for better or for ill, to the “arts” end of the humanities. And yet the field of poetry and poetics happens indeed to be one sub-area of that larger zone called “arts and humanities” (marking a mode of intellection and action not born in the academy) where the line of separation between and among the academic castes (tenured faculty, lecturer, graduate student, undergraduate, marginally affiliated community member in the town/gown sense, unenrolled local artist) has for the most part not been very clear. That line has been obscured by the tendencies of the very form that brings them together. The example of and reality of — and I dare say tradition of — this more or less intellectually classless state should present us with sufficient motive for exploring that state at a conference devoted to the topic of poetry and community. I mean to explore why in and because of the newest forms of innovative poetry the lines of separation are getting less clearly drawn, in spite of a period of extreme academic retrenchment and consolidation.

Al Filreis with Michael Golston, Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

I attended a heady several-day conference thirteen years ago devoted to the idea that there is, or should be, a close, studied relationship between the practice and advocacy of innovative poetry on one hand, and the experimental teaching of that poetry on the other — that there should ideally be a connection between the experimentalism of the poem and that of the mode by which it is presented. How much of the radicalism of Lorine Niedecker’s “condensery” (in the poem in which the speaker’s grandfather tells her to get a job but she refuses, except to do the job of producing this resistant poem) is diminished by the I know/you don’t, I speak/you listen lecture that merely delivers (shall we say, in grandfatherly fashion) the “teachings” of that poem in a university seminar room? I note with some pleasure that in this case it’s a form-content relationship in which the poetry itself is the content, and pedagogy is the form. The conservative pedagogical form is never more than an extension of its liberationist content.

My sense is that the conversation has hardly progressed in all that time. Why not? I’m not certain, but I’ll venture a guess: we’re too busy separating the work of those two areas, worried that the convergence of them, the synthesis or un-disaggregation or de-alienation of that work, requires far more effort than the two done separately and distinctly; and because our drive to innovate in the field of contemporary poetry and poetics has a stronger and greater “tradition” supporting it than the institutionally unrewarded, unincentivized project of reforming our pedagogical poetics, which has typically been the most entropic — and also the least known and least observed — thing we do.

And yet, since 1999 we’ve developed the capacity, fully, for the so-called flipped classroom — and also, not incidentally, for the flipping of the room in which a poetry reading takes place. The “flipped classroom” is a phrase used by IT people to describe the structure in which the presenter-lecturer has been digitally recorded, stored, and made asynchronously available, such that the face-to-face meeting time can now be reserved entirely for the spontaneous, collective, collaborative interaction between teachers and learners and among learners, between performers and audiences, between those who know and those who want to know, between those who already are and those who want to become, etc., such that the interaction can’t be, or can’t easily be, reproduced and redeployed. As hip and contemporary as everyone in this room is, and perhaps even more so those watching today via digital video stream, I hazard the guess that rather few of us have really flipped our classrooms and poetry readings. And yet we are quick to speak in analogous terms about the poetry we produce and admire. The analogy between (1) innovative poetries in the digital age (whether they are digital themselves or not) and (2) institutional spaces in which novices are helped into the world of poetics is not a heuristic metaphor but a real prospect. The connection, moreover, is I think an obligation, given our ideas.

If we are sanguine about the revolution augured by the first, but are taking no advantage of the revolutionary resources available to us in the context of the second, then we are naturally more likely to bemoan our fates as pawns or victims of the institution, which we can say ignores us or deploys its resources elsewhere. Those resources are more ideologically neutral than we think. So much has been made of the hegemonic deviousness, in effect, of the relationship among (a) the Cold War university, (b) formalist close reading, and (c) short-poem creative writing pedagogy — an association I take to be historically and politically accurate, by the way — that we tend to forget that the close reading of the so-called difficult poem is a relatively free zone in which academic and nonacademic can momentarily converge, and in which the sectarianism of doctoral program and non-academic generalist learning/studying can relent the concept of expertise productively tested and doubted as inefficacious. Collective collaborative reading, whether ‘close’ or not — potentially a poetic community’s greatest performance, I think — is a form of open access at the level of the line or sentence.

The intellectuals residing in an institution like the university easily incline toward the values of open access, while the keepers of the institution’s prerogatives tend toward proprietary (not to mention monetized) definitions of the knowledge and productions of its contracted members. (This is an area where the Obama administration has been positively effective, by pushing hard to require free open access publication in science and medicine, a reform from which artists and humanists will soon benefit.) Here again the poetics community can have a specific role to play within the institution. How do we promulgate the values of open access at a university whose data officers and librarians side ideologically with the concept, but whose digital/computing/indexing systems aren’t set up to confer upon open-access writings the credentialed bibliographical and other official commendation that conventional scholarship and academic art-making automatically receive? Does it matter if a magazine like Jacket2 moves into the zone of the academic in order to take advantage of securer servers, longer-lasting storage, stable domains and addresses, only then to face doubts within the academy, its new home, about whether non-peer-reviewed publication can “count” as means of bona fide assent within the system? Well, it matters when the conventions of peer review are deliberately eschewed — a more radical move, actually, than many will realize. In fact, something of the opposite of “peer review” can, and I think should be, valued — writing that takes advantage of the instantaneity and interactivity that the ascendancy of networked computers made possible twenty years ago already but which the credentialing end of academic publishing in the humanities and arts still for the most part resists. I’ll note that peer review isn’t really conducted by “peers” — more typically by those higher up assessing those lower down.

And it matters when the prospect of a cash-cow MFA program is similarly refused by the faculty whom deans and provosts need to run it and live on its masthead — a refusal achieved partly on the basis of skepticism about whether what we should do with poetry in the academy is have it taught (I say no) or, alternatively, make spaces available in which it can be learned (I say yes). If the answer is truly the latter — and I think it is, at its best (the model for that having originated outside the university, by the way) — then degree programs in the making of poetry, and in the field of poetics, tend unintentionally to undermine rather than support what is, in curricular, institutional terms, the site analogous to open access in writing and publishing.

Earlier I said that the new resources of the institution “are more ideologically neutral than we think,” and I am aware that this is a statement that can be disputed. I remind you that “than we think” makes the assertion about our negative expectations. Given that risk, I want to conclude by commending to you a recent talk given by Kenneth Goldsmith which bore the provocative title (with its Cold War echoes) “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution” (first delivered on December 16, 2011, in Chicago).

Goldsmith reminds us that the mode of “institutional critique” is already at least a half century old in visual and conceptual art, and that quite a while ago art schools began offering classes in “post-studio practice, where the studying of institutional critique became an act of making art in and of itself.” Soon he moves on to examples of this sort of thing in poetry, and refers to the controversy surrounding Issue 1 (a 3,785-page unauthorized, un-permissioned anthology of poems not written by the poets whose names appear under them), in which it can be said — although (anti)anthologist Steve McLaughlin et alia might quibble with me — that the project originated from this very institution, and in a sense from the spirit of this very space. The complaints, in favor of proprietary authorship and stringent copyright, came from people outside the academy who otherwise typically decry the squareness of university-based poetry. Such anarcho-flarf vandalism isn’t easily described as “institutional,” but it certainly had support — actual as well as pedagogical and spiritual — from here.

Goldsmith then charts a path from, in effect, his affiliation with this institution (where he teaches[1]) to the ultimate American institution, the White House, where he was asked to give a reading along with several other poets, and to speak with school-aged writers whom Michelle Obama had invited. For agreeing to appear in such an official, allegiant setting, Goldsmith was criticized. The poet Linh Dinh called Obama a mass murderer (for his war policies) and Goldsmith a “minstrel.” I myself replied to Dinh, who then requested my permission to publish my personal note on his blog, whereupon it in turn was picked up by the web team at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere. In his talk, Goldsmith quoted my rejoinder to Dinh, calling it a “nuanced and moderate argument.” I had described my assumption that Goldsmith had pondered “the downsides” of accepting the presidential invitation, which Goldsmith elaborates as “a rare opportunity to put radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play.” He then, in his talk, offered at length a close reading of the event in “institutional terms.”

I think Goldsmith flipped the White House.

McLaughlin and Carpenter flipped the poetics classroom on the day they released Issue 1. The anti–open access argument waged against Issue 1 came from outside the institution — from people who decry the warping effect a large institution has on poetry and poetics.

(With a smile on his face, Goldsmith notes that there is no irony in the academic origins of “anarcho-flarf vandalism.”)

What’s flipped about the Goldsmithian classroom at the White House — distinct from let’s say Billy Collins “teaching” his poetry at the White House — is that the innovative poet momentarily transformed the space into a discussion of the “institutional terms” of his dubious practice, certainly not the authoritative role he was invited to perform.

The flipping still needed in precincts close to here is going to require (to quote Goldsmith again) “put[ting] radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play” by displacing or at least decentering poetic authority — the grandfatherly dictum to get a job other than one this kind of space trains you for — in favor of open discourse that pays no heed to (nor connects resources naturally to) the usual academic class divides.



1. Goldsmith teaches a course within the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Everybody's a genius

Conceptual writing and community

In an apartment studio performance from 1986, Russian conceptualist writer and artist Dmitri Prigov greets the prominent Moscow artists and writers in attendance: “Here we have gathered again. There’s Tarasov, and here I stand. Kabakov is somewhere there, and there’s Chuikov. […] And there are other people sitting and standing — they are my heroes! Heroes of Pushkin! Of Lermontov, of Tchaikovsky!”[1] In a poem written six years earlier, Prigov also clearly demarcates both a community and individual talents:

An American is an enemy

 An Englishman is also an enemy

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 Pushkin is a pure genius

 Prigov is also a genius.[2]

Vanessa Place echoes Prigov’s approach in her poem “Prigov is a genius,” which uses the roster of the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a small sampling:

Wanda Coleman is a genius.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also a genius.

 Billy Collins is a genius.

 Martha Collins is a genius.

 Tony Connor is a genius.

 Nicole Cooley is a genius.

 Jane Cooper is a genius.

 Alfred Corn is a genius.

 Gregory Corso is a genius.

 Jayne Cortez is a genius.

 William Cowper is a genius.

 Hart Crane is a genius.

 Robert Creeley is a genius.[3]


Prigov and Place describe artistic communities constructed of individual talents, but they also eviscerate the notion of community. Both Prigov and Place produce this anti-community community through repetition. Prigov’s alphabetical list of rules for the Soviet citizen defines the national community through collective enemies and individual geniuses. His hailing of his friends as heroes ties nonconformist Russian artists to Tchaikovsky, the national composer, and Pushkin, the national poet. National community and artistic community are not opposed, but equated. Echoing Prigov, Place links an international aesthetic community of conceptual writing to a national register of officially recognized poetic geniuses. She performs the construction of an artistic community as a shout-out –– as the repetitive naming of individual talents.

Conceptual writing’s representation of community is very different from that to which the title of this conference alludes. The title, I take it, echoes the now almost two-decade-old Buffalo Poetics List discussion of “community and the individual talent” and Charles Bernstein’s subsequent essay of the same name in a special issue of diacritics on poetry and community.[4] That discussion in the 1990s can be seen as an extension of Language writing’s participation in the late twentieth-century renegotiation of community in the United States (and the West at large), which was a response to the pressures for multiculturalist communities and the backlash against such inclusiveness.[5]

Language writers sought to question and reform conceptions of individuals and collectives that were often taken for granted. We see this in Bernstein’s term ideolects,with its fusion of collective ideology and individual idiolect, and in his many other essays on the problems with both individual and collective identities and the possibilities of new forms of uncommunity or “commonness in partiality” –– from “The Conspiracy of Us” to the “Poetics of the Americas.”[6] Lyn Hejinian undertakes a similar search for new models of community in her engagement with Russia. In “The Person and Description,” for instance, she writes: “Subjectivity is not the basis for being a Russian person. ‘Our independent separate singularity can hardly be spoken of, but,’ Arkadii said, ‘many people wish it.’ ‘You know,’ I said, ‘many of us wish to overcome it. We think that if we can surpass or supersede the individual self we can achieve a community.’”[7] Bruce Andrews likewise envisaged “Language-centered work” as, in his words, “a creation of a community and of a world-view by once-divided-but-now-fused Reader and Writer.”[8] And in their manifesto, Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten insisted, “If there has been one premise of our group that approaches the status of a first principle, it has been … the reciprocity of practice implied by a community of writers who read each other’s work.”[9] For all their concern for the oppressiveness of fixed group identity, Language writers’ positive vision of poetry communities differs markedly from the conceptual mode. If, for Bernstein in the late 1970s, “every group has the same possibility for insularity as each individual,” conceptual writing takes this possibility to be a certainty and proceeds from there.[10] Conceptual writing would seem then to have little to do with a conference that looks back to Language writing’s more hopeful negotiations of community.

Yet the repetition now of the terms of that debate, the reframing of such early digital communities as the Poetics List in today’s Web 2.0 world, and the echoing of Eliot’s almost century-old essay also seem entirely to the point of the appropriative and repetitive, or iterative, practices of conceptual writing and its very different model of community. Community enters conceptual writings, first, in the iterations of empty markers or signs of community (what I term the Facebook “like” effect); second, in the self-construction of an artistic community through the rhetoric of individual talent (the “shout-out” effect); and third, through relation to tradition (the “Eliot” effect). Together these iterative modes constitute the conceptual anti-community that gives unity to the statements “An American is an enemy” and “Prigov is a genius.”

1. The like effect

Conceptual writers like Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place strongly foreground the empty rhetorical modes of community. They rigorously dismantle positive notions of community by highlighting how imagined communities are constituted through banal acts of liking, from sports and fast food restaurants to popular song that, as in the Facebook model, are also acts of repetition.

Goldsmith cites the shared textual material whereby imagined communities of New Yorkers or Americans are constructed through their liking of sport.[11] Extending this line, Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis cites the empty signifiers of imagined communities to be found in shopping malls and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.[12] The point is emphasized in his collections of online food reviews, in which the reviewers construct a community out of their common love of restaurants such as Panda Express.[13] Caroline Bergvall interrogates the same construction of a mass community through her own memory of lines from popular songs involving sex.[14] Place’s appropriation of online material with the question “what does this say about me?” foregrounds the construction of mass communities and individuals based on repeated acts of likeness and liking.[15] In Place’s words, “we are of an age that understands corporations are people too and poetry is the stuff of placards. Or vice versa.”[16]

This is a world away from the positive vision of community articulated by writers like Hejinian. Indeed, Place describes her practice as an attack on the utopian view of collaboration, and by extension on community.[17] In the conceptual anti-community, collective identity is constructed through the repetition of material on the model of an algorithmic system, or –– as in Christian Bök’s self-replicating The Xenotext Experiment –– a virus.[18]

2. The shout-out effect

Conceptual writers also stress the construction and marketing of literary and artistic communities –– including their own –– through what we might call the poetics of the shout-out. I have already mentioned Prigov’s shout-out to the artists in attendance at a performance in Moscow, a shout-out that became an integral part of the published poem. I have also mentioned Place’s appropriation of this move. Place takes up the shout-out in a different form in her focus on the blurb –– a subgenre of the shout-out –– in her Tragodía trilogy.Alluding perhaps to the controversy over the interpretation of Statement of Facts at the Rethinking Poetics conference,Place subjects the blurbs to deletions over the course of the trilogy, inverting their meaning and thus stressing that in the blurb genre liking takes precedence over meaning.[19] Craig Dworkin performs a form of shout-out in his listing of books in his library, and those that he wishes were in his library, in The Perverse Library.[20] Goldsmith presents the New York art community as a field of individual self-promotion in Soliloquy, his transcription of every word he said for a week.[21] Bernstein was already in the late 1970s exploring the shout-out effect through stock phrases such as “the ‘heroic’ work” of “a few ‘men’” or “I … want to take this opportunity to thank everyone.”[22] But whereas Bernstein’s phrases were expressly ironic and frequently surrounded by quotation marks, conceptual writing presents the possibility that there is no alternative to the shout-out model of artistic community.

The Web 2.0 world is of course another context for the shout-out model of community. Vanessa Place has over 3,000 friends on Facebook. We can see Place’s work on Facebook as an extension of the shout-out mode of community construction. Facebook is perfectly suited to the conceptual mode of community. Much of what is published on Facebook involves community construction through the sharing and liking of existing texts, videos, and images. But Place’s Facebook page also presents community as the place where a person’s “individual talent” is constructed through a network of recognition. Place writes: “I am because and as my facebook friends know me.”[23] In the passage Place echoes here, Gertrude Stein opposes recognition and identity to the working artist’s entity and creative genius: “Identity is recognition … I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation.”[24] Yet Stein also took pleasure in her position as celebrity, as identity — the genius who “is an ideal consumer as well as an ideal commodity, never sullied by anything resembling use value.”[25] Place collapses this tension in Stein’s work, embracing identity as the source of her writing and genius. Or as she puts it elsewhere: “Facebook is not a metaphor. It is, and it is likeness. I like this … 25 random things about me, calculated algorithmically. So I can interface with more texts like me.”[26] Place’s view of the individual and community invokes the science of statistical community detection, the identification of nodes of concentrated network activity, places where “texts like me” group.[27]

Conceptual writing itself could not exist without the notion of a community of individual talents. Here the familiar dynamics of communal literary alliances play out, where various forms of conceptual writing compete in the marketplace (Against Expression vs. I’ll Drown My Book), and various “individual talents” within the group trade on their points of difference –– Place’s presentation of hot material in a cool container vs. Dworkin’s material of scientific and linguistic description in works like Fact and Parse.[28]Yet even here, there is a contrast with Language writing. While the attacks on Language writing in the mid-1980s elicited a serious collective response in the form of a manifesto, Goldsmith chose to post Johanna Drucker’s piece on the end of conceptualism under the “obituaries” section of the Harriet Blog, immediately situating the attack and defense of conceptualism within a humorous, simulated realm of avant-garde community contestation.[29] When, in that piece, Drucker describes conceptual writing’s institutionalization as its death, she projects a vision of the avant-garde community as oppositional, a vision that Language writing still shared, but that is antithetical to conceptual writing.

3. The Eliot effect

If the conceptual model of community is in some ways antithetical to Language writing, it is not, appropriately enough, entirely original. Indeed the community, or anti-community, poetics of the shout-out also involves a turning to tradition, and in this respect returns me to that other essay title echoed in the name of the conference: Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Jacob Edmond and Joshua Kotin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

While in that essay Eliot insists, “novelty is better than repetition,” his stress on “depersonalization” through tradition, whereby “art may be said to approach the condition of science,” anticipates the depersonalization through citation and copying in conceptual writing and the scientific orientation of conceptual works like Dworkin’s Fact, with its listing of its chemical components, or Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment. In Simon Morris’s bodily occupation of the tradition in his retyping of On the Road, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head, we might detect an echo ofEliot’s “historical sense [that] compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling [of] the whole of the literature of Europe” –– or elsewhere, the “mind of Europe.”[30] Eliot’s insistence on making the past present is extended by Prigov’s extensive verbatim or near-verbatim reproductions of Pushkin’s texts, especially the opening lines of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.[31] Other examples include Place’s white-out of Gone with the Wind,her reproduction and detourning of classic feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, and Goldsmith’s singing of texts by Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, and others.[32]

Goldsmith’s reading at the White House illustrates the conceptual approach to community, tradition, and the individual talent. He began with Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” moved to Hart Crane’s 1930 work “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and concluded with excerpts from his 2007 book Traffic.[33] He might equally have read from Stein, who stressed her genius by highlighting her invitation to tea at the White House. Like Stein, Goldsmith stresses the relationship between genius and national recognition. Through his individual talent, he situates himself in a US poetic and national community. Whether through a “like” button or citation from a past master, conceptual writing performs the construction of community as a shout-out to individual talents: Walt Whitman is a genius, Hart Crane is a genius, Kenneth Goldsmith is a genius.

One further text that the title of this conference echoes is Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In that essay, Perloff concludes that what matters finally “is less the specific avant-garde ‘tradition’ … than the ‘individual talent’” –– at least in the case of the genius Charles Bernstein.[34] But what Perloff leaves out is the key role that imaginings of community or anti-community play in the individual talents of various groups including, in contrasting ways, Language writing and conceptual writing. Conceptual writing in particular emphasizes the interrelationship between the construction of individual talents and poetry communities. It makes the naming of individual talents the basis for constructing artistic communities, and communities the basis for constructing individual talents.

This is also why national communities matter to poetry even in the apparently placeless world of the Internet. And it is why the inclusions and exclusions of poetry communities also matter –– even those poetry communities such as Language writing that question the very nature of community, or those like conceptual writing that seem to eviscerate it. Only through attention to the construction of communities and their inclusions and exclusions can we see, for example, how the exclusion of Prigov from Anglophone conversations about conceptual writing reinforces the image of conceptual writing as a US export and so US claims to leadership of the international community.[35]

In other words: an American is an enemy. Dmitri Prigov is a genius. Vanessa Place is a genius. Craig Dworkin is also a genius. Charles Bernstein is a genius. Bob Perelman is a genius. Maria Damon is a genius. Steve Yao is also a genius. Al Filreis is a genius. Alexander Pushkin is a genius. Katie Price is a genius. William Shakespeare is a genius. Jonathan Fedors is a genius. Gertrude Stein is also a genius. And all you others out there –– you too are geniuses. Or, to conclude, please like this essay.



1. Dmitri Prigov and Vladimir Tarasov, performance of Azbuka 49 in Kabakov’s studio, 1986, DVD, private collection. The published version of this poem also includes this greeting, though in a modified form.

2. Prigov, Azbuka 1 in Azbuki.

3. Vanessa Place, “Prigov Is a Genius,” manuscript, emailed to the author on December 1, 2011.

4. Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” diacritics 26, no. 3–4 (1996): 176–95; Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” email to the SUNY Buffalo Poetics List, February 20, 1994, archived here.

5. See, for example, Charles Taylor’s characterization of the tension between migrant and minority groups’ increasingly assertive demands for recognition of their identities and the exclusionary and normative models of Western democratic communities. Charles Taylor, “No Community, No Democracy, Part II,” The Responsive Community 14, no. 1 (Winter 2003/2004): 15–25.

6. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1986), 343–47. Originally published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979): n.p. Facsimile available online; Bernstein, “Poetics of the Americas,” Modernism/Modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 1–23. On ideolect, see also Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Jonathan Monroe, and Ann Lauterbach, “Poetry, Community, Movement: A Conversation,” diacritics 26, nos. 3–4 (1996): 205–7, 210; Matthew Hart, “Taking the Unity out of Community,” Mantis 1 (2000); and Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 168–71.

7. Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991), 34 (emphasis in the original).

8. Bruce Andrews, “Text and Context,” Open Letter 3, no. 7 (Summer 1977): 82.

9. Silliman, Carla Harryman, Hejinian, Steve Benson, Perelman, and Watten, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto,” Social Text nos. 19/20 (Autumn 1988): 271.

10. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” 343.

11. Kenneth Goldsmith, Sports (Los Angeles: Make Now, 2008).

12. Robert Fitterman, Metropolis 16–29 (Toronto: Coach House, 2002), 8–12.

13. Fitterman, Sprawl: Metropolis 30A (Los Angeles: Make Now, 2010), 64–67.

14. Caroline Bergvall, “Wired Madeleine (1DJ2MANY),” in Middling English (Highfield, UK: John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, 2010), 22–26. Audio version and images from the installation version available online.

15. Place, “What Does This Say about Me?,” reading at Birkbeck College, University of London, September 24, 2011. Place likes the phrase enough to appropriate it in a discussion of conceptual writing: “A mirror only works insofar as I recognize or refuse to recognize myself reflected in it — like poetry, it answers the question ‘what does this say about me?’” “Vanessa Place: Poetry and the Conceptualist Period,” interview by Andrea Quaid, Bomblog,March 5, 2012.

16. Place, “Poetry Is Dead, I Killed It,” Harriet, April 5, 2012.

17. In September 2011, when I told her about the conference at which this paper was to be presented, Place expressed her disgust at the notion of poetry communities. See also Place’s attack on collaboration in experimental poetry in Place, “A Poetics of Radical Evil,” Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion 3 (2010): 97–99.

18. Christian Bök, “The Xenotext Experiment,” Scripted: A Journal of Law, Technology, and Society 5, no. 2 (2008): 227–31. Also available online.

19. In her report on the Rethinking Poetics conference held at Columbia University, June 11–13, 2010, Stephanie Young writes: “When Marjorie Perloff makes the comment, during a formalist reading of Vanessa Place’s forthcoming Statement of Facts, that the rape victims in the book are ‘at least as bad as or worse than the rapists’ there’s this wave of faces in reaction throughout the room.” See “Repoport.” For responses to the report, including a reply from Perloff, see here.. Place reframes Kim Rosenfeld’s blurb (itself the product of appropriation) for Statement of Facts so that instead of saying Place’s work opposes Judge Gilbert Alston’s infamous statement that “A whore is a whore is a whore,” Rosenfeld’s blurb ends up saying that Place’s work affirms Judge Alston’s view. Compare the inside blurbs for Place, Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2010) and Tragodía 3: Argument (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2011).

20. Craig Dworkin, The Perverse Library (York, UK: Information as Material, 2010).

21. Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary, 2001).

22. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” 346

23. Place, “The Case for Conceptualism,” Revista Laboratorio 5 (2011).

24. Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces? (New York: Pitnam, 1970), 84–85.

25. Perelman, The Trouble with Genius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 167.

26. Place, “The Death of the Text: Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House,” Harriet, May 19, 2011.

27. For an example of the burgeoning use of mathematical models for detecting communities, see M. Girvan and M. E. Newman, “Community Structure in Social and Biological Networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 12 (2002): 7821–26.

28. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011); Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Place, eds., I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2012); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2008); Craig Dworkin, “Fact,” Poetry 194, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 338.

29. Silliman et al., “Aesthetic Tendency”; Johanna Drucker, “Conceptual Writing Was Intriguing and Provocative,” Harriet Blog, reprinted from the Poetry Project Newsletter (April/May 2012).

30. Simon Morris, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (York, UK: Information as Material, 2010); T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), 49, 51.

31. Among many possible examples, see Dmitri Prigov, Faksimilʹnoe vosproizvedenie samodelʹnoi knigi Dmitriia Aleksandrovicha Prigova ‘Evgenii Onegin Pushkina’ s risunkami na poliach raboty Aleksandra Florenskogo (Facsimile reproduction of Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov’s self-made book “Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin” with drawings on the margins of the work by Aleksandr Florenskii) (St. Petersburg: Mit’kilibris; Krasnyi matros, 1998).

32. Vanessa Place, “White Out,” Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival, Greenwich University, London, July 14–16, 2010, video available online; Place, The Father and Childhood (Buffalo, NY: P-Queue Editions, 2011); Kenneth Goldsmith, Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Theory,recorded at the WFMU studios, Jersey City, New Jersey, 2006. Available on PennSound.

33. Goldsmith, “Kenneth Goldsmith Reads Poetry at White House Poetry Night.”

34. Perloff, “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry,” Revue française d’études américaines 103 (2005): 139.

35. On the importance of the US imperialist position to US conceptual writing, see Place, “Global Conceptualisms: I Am American,” UbuWeb, 6 June 2012.

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.