I am a Conceptual writer. I’m also “just” a “writer.” I’m a body and a mind and a woman and the child of immigrants, and I am sexual and sometimes contradictory and on the move. And I write.
The ways I hear “Conceptual writing” discussed often feel limited to me, given the capaciousness of the term “concept.” I hear it so often discussed under terms that seek to erase authorship through mechanistically procedural habits or found/repurposed language. There’s additionally a sad whiteness factor to who gets considered under such a banner. It’s an old problem. It persists, along with the way western values privilege abstraction as intelligence or “real” knowledge, demarking what is of noteworthy contribution.
And so, I reiterate. I claim. I mark out. I take. I am a Conceptual writer.
I write out of a nexus of interests and concerns. I write to express my feelings and trace those feelings’ roots. By doing so, I hope to maybe identify some of the social phenomena that perpetuate and create them. I write to consider. I write to consider otherwise.
Another way I am a “Conceptual” writer is that my work is often rooted in exploring “concepts.” Furthermore, I am interested in and creatively sustained by certain notions that have zero basis in western historical structures of knowledge.
For example, I am very interested in understanding 한 (han). It’s a “Korean” cultural ethos. I use scare quotes around the adjective “Korean” because 한is an ethos and value — a spiritual structure and feeling — that antedates nation forms or what we imagine the nation of “Korea” to be and mean.
한is a powerful concept for understanding devastation, anguish, bitterness, loss. It’s helpful for understanding suffering and power. I refuse to enlist or name those commonly trotted out thinkers who also consider such dilemmas. It’s not tied to western judeo-christian-ish philosophical dilemmas around power or suffering, and most especially conceptual divisions between perception and abstraction, which it simply doesn’t bother to consider as a question. And that is its immense value to me. In 한, a body is a feeling is a weeping is a history and drowning release. Blood and sky, this 한. Such immensities. I feel 한in some of Myung Mi Kim’s work, in Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hye Soon. I see 한in contemporary Korean cinema, like Mother or Poetry. I feel 한 myself when I sit down and let some of the intense sadness of my family story wash over me. It dances with the slow sweep of a white sash into the sky, held aloft beyond tears. Out of suffering, it lives and rises while it drowns. It has a magma intensity. It burns me down and does not allow me to forget.
This 한 I try to understand is a very specific thing. It’s rich and painful and eludes me but I feel that trying to engage and understand it enriches my ability to make sense of myself in the world — the shapes and powers that inform not just my life and worldview, but countless others who are Korean diasporic subjects.
What my considerations of 한 have also allowed me to explore and inhabit is a richly helpful asymmetry. With 한, things are broken and irreconcilable. There aren’t any patterns one can hold to. It simply moves. And as satisfying as a procedure or strict form can be for me, such shapes do not need to dictate the outlines or contributions of “the conceptual” in my work. Conceptual does not need to be symmetrical or recognizably organized. The body and spirit organize things according to their own structures and tides, and that is also quite valuable for how it moves beyond the orders I can feebly comprehend with my human apparatus. To recognize a space is to have perhaps some illusory master over it. The asymmetries and irreconcilabilities of pursuing and tracing 한 push me into what I do not know and perhaps cannot know.
And for that, I am grateful.
1. If it isn’t western, dare it be a “concept”? The ridiculousness of such a question points to the ridiculousness of invisible biases that seek to appropriate vital alterities only in terms of western ideological parameters.
The original call for work for our journal Area Sneaks sought “to touch the live wire where language and visual art meet.” The very real divide between poetry and visual art, as we saw it in 2007, is where we discovered this metaphorical live wire. The figure of the area-sneak, a term borrowed from Charles Dickens, proved to be our principle guide. It is a slang term derived from the “literature of roguery” or what scholar Daniel Tiffany calls “infidel culture,” a nineteenth-century literary community “shaped in part by radical politics, but also by a revolution in the media,” whereby “activities such as theft, pimping, rape, blackmail, and pornography … and popular politics intersected with organized crime.” The term “area-sneak” in particular refers to a class of small-time thieves or pickpockets who were known to cross boundaries, or the area-gates of working houses, to commit their crimes. And so we began each issue with one of two epigraphs: “From the swell mob, we diverge to the kindred topics of cracksmen, fences, public-house dancers, area-sneaks, designing young people who go out ‘gonophing’ and other ‘schools’”; and “Benevolent area-sneaks get lost in the kitchens and are found to impede the circulation of the knife-cleaning machine.” We found the term well-suited, and perhaps a little bit perverse, for a magazine that hoped to cross its own boundaries, to traverse the disciplines of poetry and visual art, and to encourage the trespassing of these areas.
When we first conceived of this journal, there were few publications in the United States that attempted to provide a space for both poets and artists to present their work or to engage in conversation. We were puzzled as to why this should be. Throughout the twentieth century artists and writers had forged a very close relationship. The avant-garde is full of obvious examples, from Futurism to Wallace Berman’s Semina Culture to Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayers’s mimeographed journal 0 to 9. As poet Caroline Bergvall notes, “The array of historic art shows, notably around Concrete, Dada, and Futurist movements or those from more recent Environmental or Concept Arts, where the strict line between textual and visual exploration blissfully dissipates are [an] important linkage between artistic modalities.” Our intention with Area Sneaks was to place various media and materials into dialogue: artist projects, poetry, historical papers, speculative essays on art and language, poetics statements, imaginative theses, Conceptual writing, photographic essays, performance documents, interviews, architectural critiques, and film analyses all kept uneasy company within the journal’s pages.
In 2009, Bergvall attended an event at the Serpentine Gallery in London curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist called The Poetry Marathon, in which more than fifty poets and artists were slated to take part. But she found her experience somewhat troubling. “Although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork,” she wrote, “it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, ‘poetry.’ Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, ‘I don’t know poetry,’ ‘I don’t know what to read,’ choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing as part of the event. Here, poetry itself was treated as a historical, in the sense of acquired, decorative, rather than productive, mode of functioning.”
She goes on to note, “the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial,” or seem to be, and that “the cultural status quo is still very much, and in an often unexamined way, one of irreconcilable historic and formal differences between the literary and visual arts.” And even more provocatively: “the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure … is language itself.” The same year, Tim Griffin, then the editor-in-chief of Artforum, described poetry as “seeming to the outside world little more than an archaic discipline, around which institutions were inevitably built in order to preserve its character and form.”
If the divide between poetry and the visual arts seemed insurmountable in 2009, the intervening years have proven that, as Quinn Latimer noted in a special 2014 issue of Frieze devoted to poetry, “contemporary art is hungry and omnivorous; it devours and assimilates everything.” Artist-run magazines such as Triple Canopy, Animal Shelter, The Happy Hypocrite, and Material have increasingly published poetry alongside art criticism and artist portfolios. Artists such as Karl Holmqvist and Sue Tompkins use poetry as their medium. And there has been increasing institutional interest in poetry as well. In 2014 Hans Ulrich Obrist, along with the LUMA Foundation, inaugurated 89plus and “Poetry will be made by all,” an exhibition at the LUMA Westbau exhibition space in Zurich, Switzerland, this time with artists and poets less anxious about language. In Los Angeles, the Poetic Research Bureau has begun an ongoing collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art on a series of performance and poetry events entitled Step and Repeat. And the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial included a poetry anthology called The Animated Reader edited by Brian Droitcour.
What changed in the past five or six years to facilitate such a rapprochement between poetry and the visual arts? We have our suspicions, but needless to say a full account would require more research and space than can be afforded in this short editorial note. We hope that Area Sneaks,which has throughout remained a small, out-of-pocket, and irregularly published enterprise, is neither praised nor buried for providing an ongoing space for dialogue between poets and visual artists.
2. Caroline Bergvall, qtd. in Fred Sasaki, “Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London,” The Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation, 2009.
6. Quinn Latimer, “Art Hearts Poetry,” Frieze Magazine 164 (June–August 2014).
7. For informed accounts of the recent rapprochement between poetry and visual art, see Alan Gilbert, “Skinscreen: Art and Poetry at the New Museum’s Surround Audience Triennial,” BOMB Magazine 133 (Fall 2015) and Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, “Let’s Take a Very Fucking Poetry Lesson: Art’s Crush on Poetry,” X-Tra Contemporary Art Quarterly (Winter 2016).
Lexicon-Cetus is a dictionary that compiles and defines every single unique word from Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. There are approximately 16,000 “unique” words in Moby-Dick; about 5,000 of them are a mixture of common given names, plurals, infinitives, gerunds, and/or adjectival/adverbial forms of root words. If the root word is already defined in the lexicon, then any derivations thereof are for the most part excluded. So the text is comprised of roughly 13,000 definitions (including all meaningful proper nouns; people, places, textual references, etc.) There are also 163 Unicode illustrations (range: 1F300–1F5FF), which appear programmatically throughout the book. (Only symbols that are exact matches with words in the lexicon were used.) The text is about 110,000 words longer than Melville’s novel.
The list of unique words was compiled using NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit), a Python platform for textual/linguistic analysis. About seventy-five percent of the definitions were acquired from Princeton’s WordNet 3.0. The rest had to be gathered manually using The Oxford English Dictionary, Wiktionary.org, and Wikipedia. The book was edited and formatted using Python, MS Word, Excel, NotePad, TextPad, Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The entire process took a little over a month, working typically between three to five hours a day.
The basic idea for the lexicon comes from the paratextual opening of the novel, in which we are introduced to an “Usher” who provides us with “etymologies” and translations of the word “whale.” (“Usher” here has a double meaning; it implies both a herald, and an assistant to a schoolmaster, or apprentice scholar.) Not surprisingly, Melville’s characterization of the Usher is far from flattering: “consumptive,” “pale,” “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain … ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars.” … this usher is a miserable creature. Perhaps this book is the work of such a creature.
Though not always diseased, poor, heartless, weak, and stupid, lexicographers and lexicons in general do tend to be somewhat maligned figures/objects in the literary imagination, or they are at least representative of a kind of pinnacle (or nadir) of creative incompetence. It seems that the lexicographer, as a compiler/arranger of words, and the lexicon, as his/her compilation or arrangement, are wholly inimical to what we expect or allow “writer” and “poem” to mean. Here, for example, is Ambrose Bierce (as written in his own lexicon …):
LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods … In the golden prime and high noon of English speech … when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation … the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.
Here is Calvino, slightly more succinctly: “The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”
This seems to be the general consensus. Because dictionaries, lexicons, word compilations, etc., represent the lowest common denominator of linguistic usage (which is because that’s precisely what they’re meant to do), they are natural metaphors for creative vacuity.
But for all that, the dictionary/lexicon is not universally maligned. Anatole France seems to have understood the word with some measure of vastness, wonder, and potentiality. “Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order. The dictionary is the book above all books … All other books are in it: it is only a matter of taking them out.”
But if we reverse France’s logic we arrive at the conceptual core of Lexicon-Cetus, wherein we touch upon a somewhat unexpected epiphenomenon of the transformation from “book” back to lexicon. When its component parts are stripped of their arrangement, alphabetized, and reattached to their generic meanings, the identity of Melville’s poetic universe is obviously destroyed. Here the novel Moby-Dick dies a methodical, protracted death. But more so, whereas in all other cases, the lexicon is only ever the beginning of the poetic lifecycle, here it is both beginning and end. The novel dies by being rearranged back into its most primordial configuration. “For you were made from dust, and to dust you shall return.”
However clear the finality of this rearrangement appears, once the dust has settled, something does in fact remain. For me, Lexicon-Cetus is an oddly “mystical” text. Even though each word is emptied out, hollow, like the cavernous belly of Moby-Dick, each word is at the same time weighed down by the gravity of its massive corpulence (Melville + Moby-Dick + Whale). While the spirit is torn asunder by the violence of rearrangement, still it seems to haunt every word. Where once was there was one massive Moby-Dick,now there are thousands of miniscule ones.
Is this mental/intellectual/psychological focus within Conceptualism ableist? At the very least it seems to be one-dimensional: the body marks a caesura, and it is a product of Conceptualism’s relationship with the body and its positioning of itself in relation to it. There’s so much of a focus on the idea, on how the work strikes the mind — it’s rife with duality. Indeed, Conceptualist scion Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” can be surprisingly Cartesian at times. He writes: “Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.” This sentence bothers me because it implies that the mind is not somehow talking to the eye or emotions. If Conceptualism is about the idea, why couldn’t the idea be communicated through the body? What if the “machine” that drives the poem’s construction is the body? What if the Oulipian constraint is the body (via disability, media, etc.)?
The manner in which I came to ask these questions is undeniably personal. On March 1, 2014, I suffered two small strokes in my thalamus and paramedial pons, respectively. I was lying in bed watching Bergman’s The Magician and noticed my lips were numb. I was having difficulty standing up. It was like I was drunk, but I’d been sober for a month. Then my partner said my right eyelid was drooping. We called an ambulance. I was taken to the hospital. They confirmed the strokes. About three days later, my neurologist gave me the prognosis: I probably would never drive again, I would have difficulty playing piano anywhere near like I had, my double vision would likely never be resolved, there was a ninety percent chance any one of the small strokes I had could have killed me, and neither did, so I was lucky to be alive at all. After seven days I was transferred to a rehab hospital. I relearned how to walk with a cane, regained some strength and coordination in my left arm and hand, and adjusted to using an eye patch because I had diplopia. After three weeks, I went home. I began aggressive outpatient therapy and by the summer no longer needed the cane or eye-patch and was taking piano lessons again, and my left hand and arm were roughly eighty to ninety percent back to normal (and remain so).
Needless to say, at first — due to the persistent dyskinesia of my left hand — typing was (and still is to a lesser but recognizable degree) a chore. My writing practice changed and became increasingly mediated or reliant upon found language or “plagiarism” (Apple + C/V was easier than typing). If I typed, I had to write in my head well in advance. My poetry became compressed, shorter, littered with the medical/physiological/therapeutic jargon I was inundated with in rehab, in the hospital, by nurses, physical and occupational therapists. Recording conversations or declamations by visitors surreptitiously via iPhone (or screencapping texts or Facebook messages to “plagiarize” later as well) became a primary mode of practice. I would often simply end up editing this found language or present it as is, merely adding line breaks (if that). As Conceptual as Goldsmith’s Fidget or formally radical as Kathy Acker’s work? No. I was inspired by the work of poets like Larry Eigner (and his story), CAConrad and his soma(tics), and Bernadette Mayer’s approaches to biography (cf. The Helens of Troy, NY). The effects of these strokes — the headaches, diplopia, and dyskinesia — became constraints or platforms and frames for linguistic data. The Latinate jargon that flooded my ears became found-language poems, as did the fodder of the often absurd conversations with visitors, friends, and family.
So were these poems Conceptual? I think so. Goldsmith’s détournement of LeWitt’s “Paragraphs” might be suspect: “The physicality of the work can become a contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Rhyme, meter, texture, and enjambment only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the reader in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device.” The materiality alluded to here is cleaved to “physicality” not just in the sense of words on a page but writing produced by a body, through a body. The body, then, is an idea for purposes of Conceptual writing. Its failures, slippages, malfunctions, and (dis)abilities become part of that materiality and the media we use to mollify our bodies’ fallibility. They are a constituent part of the words on the page and thus the idea (often, the poetic devices Goldsmith alludes to become ways of “scoring” my body/existence). It is important that we begin to think of the work of disabled poets (indeed, all poets) not only as the work of the minds of these writers, but also the work of their bodies — a détournement, as it were, of disability as constraint and instead, like the pistons in an interference engine, the frictive kinesis of a language-producing machine. We might think of this as a special branch of Conceptual writing: ’corpaphysics, or the science of embodied solutions; disability poetics reconfigured as materialist/embodied poetics.
4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.
Constraint and construction, body as page
I talk about meaning all day long. I don’t feel that language comes out of my body, but rather that I observe and recycle it. Maybe my voice originates in my body, but language is a visitor that changes form all the time. I use my body all day long. I don’t feel that I am my body, but that embodiment is an idea that I observe and recycle. Maybe I originate in my body, but I am a visitor that changes form all the time. Is the idea that emerges from this line of thinking a concept? I think about what I want to do with poetry all day long. Maybe poetry originates in the space around me and I observe and recycle it. Is this a concept?
I engage in the conceptual body practices of yoga and butoh as a way of experimenting with the extraction and recontextualization of the body from public space to a collective space. With the guidance of a teacher, I follow directions while making decisions about how to interpret instructions for my own purposes of discovery and experience. In yoga practice, I enjoy the idea of giving up control of my own body for an entire hour in order to move according to the creative decisions of another. Often with my writing, I set rules for the poem and then let the language move within them. In both instances, something unexpected often happens.
Butoh is a bodily movement practice that emerged in reaction to modern dance. Instead of focusing on the shape that the body should make, the practitioner interprets the teacher’s prompts in their own way. For two hours, we writhe or crawl or walk at various speeds, become trees or reach for their fruit. Fall and die over and over. It is a time away from language, but a time when language is incubating or its elements are transforming into new foundations. What feels most related to my poetry practice is the allowance to go somewhere unexpected framed by an abstraction of ideas about how we think we move in the world. My body is a language that doesn’t always have to make sense.
A major difference between my bodily practices and my composition of poetry is the idea of performance. I’m adamant that I am not a performer. I don’t understand the value of others watching how I move my body. However, I am acutely aware during the process of composition that I want readers to share in the experience of the poem in multiple ways. I am creating prompts for reading as much as I am following the ones that I’ve created. The poem is also a space that I’m creating, a site of experimentation, sometimes messy and sometimes overly rigid, an explosion in explanation of some terrain rendered in language.