From Conceptual poem to concept-shape
In 1977 at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, the artist and poet Stanisław Dróżdż (1939–2009) exhibited an installation piece titled między (“between”). It consisted of a rectangular white box, roughly eleven feet tall, seventeen feet wide, and twenty-three feet long. Inside and out, this box was covered with the letters m, i, ę, d, z, and y, carefully distributed and arranged so that at no point could a viewer spell out the word między horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Additionally, each of the letters appeared about a quarter of the time in each of four positions: upright, rotated ninety degrees to the right, rotated ninety degrees to the left, and upside down. A door permitted gallery-goers to enter what amounted to a room-within-a-room, where the ceiling, walls, and floor were identical in appearance. Once inside, people were surrounded by a swarm of sans-serif letters, each more than two hand-spans in size. They could walk on letters, lean on them, circulate among them.
Dróżdż began in the 1960s as a poet who wrote rather conventional lineated verse. After becoming aware of the international Concrete poetry movement, he began to test more innovative layouts and explore the visual dimension of written language. By the time he constructed między he had ceased thinking of the page as the default location for his language experiments. His works had become increasingly architectural, involving the two- and three-dimensional arrangement of letters and words in public spaces and galleries. Although he continued to refer to his installation-based pieces of the 1970s as poezja konkretna (concrete poetry), he also began labeling them pojęciokształty, a portmanteau word whose two component parts are pojęcie (concept, idea) and kształt (shape, form).
In Polish, konkretna has nothing to do with beton (concrete the building material). It is an adjective that means “substantial,” “real,” or “actual.” Między, accordingly, is a poem made substantial, made real, one that a person can walk around and into. Its letters have been repeated, dispersed, and fixed in grid-space so as to draw attention to the strokes, curves, and dots that together produce a commonplace word. These marks also promiscuously reinvent themselves. A Polish speaker in 1977 would have looked around and seen not only the letters d, e, i, m, y, and z but also the letters N (z rotated 90 degrees), p (d rotated 180 degrees), and w (m rotated 180). And, weirdly, she would have seen exclamation points (i flipped upside down), as if this enveloping word-cloud were terribly! excited! by having guests stop in to have a look. Amid the jumble, too, this hypothetical viewer would have glimpsed words, partial words, and word-ghosts — dzień (day), imię (name), nie (no), miedż (copper), mnie (me), my (we), piwem (with beer), wiem (I know), wy (you), zimę (winter), and so forth — as if she were witnessing inchoate thoughts just beginning to emerge into the world, caught en route between the blank white of preverbal intuition and the inky finality of lineated verse.
Między’s literary and lexical aspects play out, significantly, within a well-defined spatial form (kształt) — a rectangular box — that in turn functions allegorically to convey an underlying concept (pojęcie). Dróżdż provides his audience with an occasion to experience and think about mediation and language. Letters and words come “between” viewers and that which is hidden from sight, in other words, that which, depending on their location, lies either inside or out of the box. Moreover, as a room-within-a-room, między functions as a mis en abyme. Is the “white cube” of the gallery another discursive container that interrupts sight lines? If we step outside into the street, what other word-boxes may enclose us — the city, the state, the Polish United Workers’ Party (which governed Poland from 1948 to 1989)? Are these enclosing frames necessarily bad things, or, insofar as they are granted heightened visibility, made sensible and palpable, might they serve as spaces for creative and generative play?
One could keep going. Like all of Dróżdż’s best pojęciokształty, między is terrifically evocative. Further analysis, however, would reinforce what should already be evident. If one wishes to globalize the history of Conceptual writing — to think about the contemporary work of poets such as Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place as one local variant of a much larger storyline — then one cannot rely solely on Anglophone sources and American genealogies. In Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Marjorie Perloff held up Brazilian Concrete poetry as an indispensible precursor; Jacob Edmond’s A Common Strangeness (Fordham University Press, 2012) pointed out that 1980s and 1990s Moscow conceptualism — an avant-garde that included Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, and Vsevolod Nekrasov — should be read as an analogous literary phenomenon. A figure such as Dróżdż, who was already thinking through the relation between linguistically innovative poetry and Conceptual art in the 1970s in Poland, reminds us how much further we must go before we can claim to know the prehistory of the present moment.
Marcel Duchamp features prominently, for instance, in debates today for and against American-style Conceptual poetry. Who is appropriating what found text, and to what end? As a “Conceptual poem,” między would likely send a historically minded critic not to Parisian Dada but to the likes of El Lissitzky’s Soviet Constructivist installation Proun Room (1923), a utopian attempt to use the dynamic interplay of color, shape, and line to make viewers think about the space around them as material to be actively sculpted, formed, and sensuously experienced.
Dróżdż, as Lissitzky’s heir, reprises this effort, albeit with words in place of geometric abstractions. He asks: How might language, as a thing seen and felt, enter into and revolutionize the spaces and environments we inhabit? Conceptual poetry (pojęciokształty) of this variety does not lead ineluctably to commentary on information management, knowledge work, and Internet memes. It pushes one to think about design theory and ecocriticism, and about pioneering shapers of the built environment from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Andrea Zittel.
What concept do you want to wear today? What poem do you wish to sleep in tonight?
One of the questions I want to ask given the failure of some recent so-called Conceptual poetry is, what are metaphors for the production and experience of black life that do not primarily reproduce the trauma of antiblack racism? What metaphors, although historically part of the maintenance of white supremacy, can be repurposed in the service of sustaining black life? And how?
At the close of his introduction to Home: Social Essays, Amiri Baraka suggests one such metaphor when he writes, “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker.” Zora Neale Hurston explores a similar idea regarding the relationship between black identity, representation, and text when she writes, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Though Baraka’s link between the book and blackness is more indirect than Hurston’s, both imagine being, or express a feeling of being, more black within their context, where the context is, most immediately, writing or publication, which is to say, appearing somehow in print. Both writers, among other writers and artists, consider the problem of being represented as black ink in the midst of the whiteness of the pages of their books. This metaphor, that black ink refers to black skin and that white paper refers to white skin, is not the responsibility alone of black writers and artists to articulate and intervene in.
Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, a 740-page book of almost entirely black ink (if it is to be printed), extends from both the intimacy and the gap between writing and racialization (as black) that Hurston, Baraka, and others describe. By contextualizing Melgard’s piece in this intimacy and gap, by wondering about the blackness in Black Friday, I hope to read in a way that contributes to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney think of as black study, the study of black life, which is life.
Melgard wanted to know the maximal difference between a digital book and a printed one. The way she sought out this difference was by testing what Lulu.com would refuse to print. Would they print an all-black book? Was there a kind of book that could exist only digitally? Wouldn’t Lulu be sabotaging themselves if they somehow missed her scam? Seven hundred and forty pages of black ink would cost more to print than a book with white space between words on a page. But Melgard found an unpredictable limit. While she might have hoped to break the printers, she succeeded in making a book that can only sometimes appear in print.
The book that can only sometimes appear in print offers another take on the already unstable metaphor regarding print and page, black and white. Although the title and concept of Black Friday refer most explicitly to the circulation of material wealth and the constructions of class identity through big-sale shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday also refers us to the simultaneous void and materiality of the body, and the importance of not controlling the appearance of a black body in particular. Melgard’s poem produces the grounds for a fantasy about minimizing whiteness. The only part of the body of the book that’s white is its tiny page numbers. The context of this work exceeds its own conceptualization, which helps it work in more ways than it set out to. Also, thinking through blackness here suggests potentially shared desires for poetry which might go unnoticed otherwise.
I read Black Friday as indebted to the Black Arts Movement, which delivers one of the most significant calls for poems to exceed themselves by becoming material, so that they, in Baraka’s words, “shoot / guns.” Melgardprovides a small assist to Baraka here. Black Friday is a poem that might destroy the means of its own production. These similar but different dreams of materialization and dematerialization speak to the impotence of poetry alone to effect political change, yet the dream for poetry to be other than itself does not abate. For Baraka, writing leads to intensifying his own racial identity and visibility, which also increases his vulnerability, and, at the same time, it gives him more power, or at least the potential to be involved in a physical response to violence. For Melgard, the distance travelled between the printed and digital book keeps fantasies about minimizing whiteness and becoming blacker in motion, stretching toward the power to effect the physical and political context that renders the work more meaningful than it can say.
In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Blackness fills in space between matter, between object and subject, between bodies, between looking and being looked upon. It fills in the void and is the void. Through its circulation, blackness attaches to bodies and narratives coded as such but it always exceeds these attachments.” Baraka’s work and Melgard’s project ask about this circulation in particular. They walk us up to or throw us into the gap this circulation circumscribes, the place where an indelible distinction between black and white succeeds but at the same time fails because whiteness relies so heavily on blackness to be itself.
These authors suggest that “becoming blacker” is to succeed at marking an important distinction between metaphor and materiality and, at the same time, it is to suffer in the gap, the failure to maintain this distinction, given the bulk and, ultimately, exhaustion of the work of maintaining it. There is no possibility for poems to shift their own contexts if there is not the possibility of participating in an intensification of blackness.
Poetic form itself cannot contain the violence of antiblack racism. This is to say, my concept for writing and the form my concept takes should not be expected to hold and protect me from growing public awareness, anger, and grief about the incalculable vulnerability black life suffers. Something more, much more than the concept of writing itself is needed, or something less. Much less, much less white is needed.
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.