On the Defence of Conceptualism

Viktor Vasnetsov. The Unsmiling Tsarevna (Nesmeyana). 1916-1926. Oil on Canvas http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vasnetsov_Nesmeyana.jpg

(Like many of the posts on my blog, this is a ramble sparked by current events. I apologize if it lacks solidity and editing [I might go back and edit it, I might not] And like most of these posts, it comes from a need to get it out and it will get expounded upon eventually through the rest of my writing in the future. I’ve got nothing to lose.)

It is hard to defend conceptualism nowadays. I have been thinking, speaking, and digesting it for months that I woke up today in a state of agitation. There have been a few controversies with it way before I started using it in my work, but in 2015 things got a little haywire. Regardless of poetry or art’s motivations the enfant terrible of the poetry -isms has pushed beyond its confines and some of us are left to pick up the detritus left in its wake.

Some of us are appropriating it. Some of us are dismissing it and moving on. Some of us are doing both, which includes me. I’m purposely being vague because if I’m going to be talking about appropriation and interpretation in poetry, I have to step surely from a place I know and with consideration of the craft that is under fire.

A few years ago, I yearned to get back into writing. I started this blog in 2010 with the intention of starting up again, even if it was just to express myself in order to communicate better with my children. That same year while at the book store I picked up Update by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler and Eunoia by Christian Bök. A Griffin poetry prize winner and a book that utilized social media, an expressive form that revolutionized the way I communicate every day with relish. Reading these texts bent my brain in a good way, blew my mind actually, thus after doing a bit of research I came across Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing.

(Now before I continue, some will posit this: influenced by works of white men. Well, I counter that with the fact that William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe were the first lyrical poets to impact me heavily because they were taught to me school. As the child of immigrant parents from Colombia, I was taught and read to in Spanish at home. It was only until later, in my explorations that I broke out of the white bubble of today’s education system to find poets I identified with not just from expression, but from relatable “minority” backgrounds. You can say the same for conceptualism.)

I gobbled up Uncreative Writing just like the first time I came across a Magritte in person. With Rene Magritte’s L’anniversaire I realized I could paint from dreams. With uncreative writing, the writer’s blocks I often suffered were suddenly alleviated. It was remarkable. Let’s go beyond the Warholian analogies/comparisons and stick to what I feel makes conceptualism work.

Every day we are bombarded with information and a lot of this information takes the form of text. Even when we are presented with images, those images are comprised of an ordered binary text built to present an image before you. When Shakespeare observed the world around him, he saw oral stories and built textual narratives out of these already well-known legends. He appropriated history and his every day to bring you Hamlet and King Lear (Lear being my favourite btw). It is the task of the poet to take the world around her and build her own language to communicate it. When the printing press was invented, the writer saw potential in it. When the typewriter was invented, writers saw potential in it. When the personal computer was invented…wait hold up.

“Uh. How do we use it?” the poet asked.

The personal computer isn’t just a word processor, it’s a text generator and a text manipulator. The poet can copy and paste, rearrange, and create out of the infinite sedimentary material coming from its input and output. It’s mad, I tell you, madness! A poet and writer doesn’t just have to write about the sky, the dying rose, or the way her lover’s face melts in her memory. A poet can now write about the ingredients in her jello pudding and the impact that the words “jello pudding” have post-Bill Cosby. I could take the ingredients of jello pudding and put them through a word processor, copy and paste them and remix them with the word “rape.” The poem generated can read like nonsense for some, but for others, well, it’s a statement. Words have strong meaning regardless of how they’re arranged, they nevertheless mean something.

In Against Expression, an anthology of conceptual writing by Dworkin and Goldsmith, visual artist Claude Closky describes his refrigerator:

My refrigerator

The usable volume of my refrigerator is far superior to conventional capacities, and allows me to store my fresh and frozen produce. The meat compartment with adjustable temperature and the crisper with humidity control assure me a perfect preservation of my food. Furthermore, the fan-cooling unit makes and dispenses my ice to me as well as fresh water. Moreover, my refrigerator is equipped with an anti-bacterial coating that helps me to keep it clean.”

I don’t care if you don’t like it, but this dude just wrote a love letter to his fridge. Who does that? Who even dares to write poetry about the brilliant network of fire and power under the hood of a car? Surely that’s just as complex as the curves of a lover’s body. Why are we still writing about the moon in someone’s eyes? WHAT ABOUT THE DUST *ON* THE MOON? Conceptual writing takes the mundane and places it on the same pedestal as the glory of a rising sun. I know that after a blackout there’s no sound as mellifluous as the buzz of the fridge motor kicking in. When Marjorie Perloff titles her analysis of conceptual poetry as Unoriginal Genius, I think she forgot that there is originality here and it lies in the hands of the artist that appropriates.

Right now, arguments have been getting hung up on the word “appropriation,” and within good reason. Issues of copyright will always be a writer or artist’s concern. For some, the craft of writing is where we can both expressive ourselves and make a living while doing it. We can’t live like Jack Kerouac anymore and we don’t have the financial cushioning of Isabel Allende (an indirect nod to Roberto Bolaño). Writing these days is treated like a hobby and sometimes as a joke career. Therefore, number one rule in appropriation is posting credit where credit is due. While the work, let’s say, remixing a national financial newspaper with a gossip mag, is free, the poet must credit the places they took their material from. It’s not only ethical, but it gives the work context and a means for the reader to relate to the work. Painters paint what they see, writers write what they know, readers and art consumers eventually own your piece of work in the long run. Give them something to chew on.

Now I’ve written a few pieces on the latest controversies appropriating racial bodies, ethics in conceptualism, and such, and for some of these I’m awaiting them going into print. I can’t elaborate on that subject matter without stepping over the publication of that material. For the purposes here, I will stick to “a current defence of conceptualism.” I mean, current because what sparked this post was this:

This screen cap taken from my the stream on my twitter feed.

The Poetry Foundation piece is this one: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/06/kenneth-goldsmith-says-he-is-an-outlaw/

I agree, it was scathing commentary. It’s been a pile on since April 2015. On all sides. It’s cringe worthy for those of us that practice conceptualism to have to defend what we do because a couple of people made some mistakes and stepped over a huge line. Now let me try to elucidate why people are angry with the current tactic and defence of conceptualism.

As someone who has her privileges and in many ways I don’t, I have to say that watching three white men mansplain the world of conceptualism right now is a huge way to get me to dismiss your argument. How is that a defence of the work? In an ideal world, our skin colour, financial status, scholarly background, sexual orientation, and gender shouldn’t matter. We should be free to talk about what we want to talk about. Free speech builds the world up and can revolutionize it when it needs to be.  What do I want to see? I want to see a discussion by people who disagree with each other, who come from different backgrounds who profess their ideologies without blinders on. It’s really hard to defend conceptualism and lyricism right now if you don’t have a phD, are not white, are not currently pitching a novel, or thinks of themselves as the greatest new thing since Picasso. Fuck Picasso. Picasso’s dead, man.

Arguments like Perloff’s above insinuate that those of us that speak against what Goldsmith’s work in April are “not privileged enough to know better.” How do you expect anyone to listen to your argument if you’re telling us, that we must *appreciate* a work that is racist (Note: I do not believe Goldsmith is racist. Not at all. The resulting work at Brown University was racist. The poet, not so much.). There is a fundamental flaw in telling a reader that they have to appreciate something in order to understand it. Excuse me and my place, but you don’t tell me how to appreciate something. If we’re going to sit back and let the work speak for itself, I’m the reader and digester of work much like we all are, thus I have full power here.

What I’m finding in all the arguments against and for conceptualism is vitriol. Blind vitriol and animosity from all sides. It’s a detriment to your arguments. Conceptual writing comes from conceptualism going back to French medieval thinkers and the Jesuits. Talk about colonization. Talk about lyricism and how it helped educate the slave world and eradicate the languages of the New World. All modern literature is racist in a way. However, not all written work is racist. Some of it is rebellious. You can take a white man’s text and make it your own. You can manipulate text to expose its racist meat or you can take a whole education system down by taking the archaic means by which it operates and turn it against itself. You can decolonize using conceptualism and lyricism. You can take the works of William Shakespeare and expose the racism and misogyny within its production. You can take the works of a fascist ruler or corporation and use them to bring them down.

I defend conceptualism from the romantic view that lyricism ingrained in me. There’s an unlimited amount of rebellious potential inside of it. Anyone is free to use conceptualism and to use it well. You don’t need a degree or financial backing to create poetry nowadays. Words belong to the people and the people must use them. It’s a huge responsibility, but that’s the key. Words and their production are a huge responsibility and you must think before you use them and about why you’re using them. How does the poet’s work affect the consumer of it? Sure, we can create work just because we can, but in this day and age, you can not call yourself a poet without progressing the work (even if it is just for yourself). If anything this year has taught me is that words, no matter where they come from, have great power. You can not use that power callously.

Fuck colonization. Fuck all of it. THINK for once about your audience. You’re not convincing anyone in a circle jerk of hate or elitism.

Let’s come at this whole poetry anger from a place where we can revolutionize again. Poetry is freedom. WE NEED TO REVOLUTIONIZE in order to move forward.

In this post http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2013/06/28/uncreative-writing-the-derive-and-your-life/ I said that every book should have a white cover. My white covered books have grey fingerprints and as such, is unique to my shelf.

I want to fuck/conceptualize your white texts up because in the end, I am free to do so. I’m covering all your texts with grey and colour.


I HAVE SO MUCH MORE TO SAY. The poetry world hasn’t experienced this much upheaval since the 1930s. There’s no possible way I could parse the state I’m in and condense it well and coherently.

I’m just venting here, but hopefully I make sense to someone out there. I gotta go do groceries before a Skype meeting. My kid took my last croissant. I have to put away the books that I took out to write this thing. I only cited one.

I’m not sure if all things poetry agitate me or are exciting to me today. Do I put the books away or do I throw them up in the air?

Be agitated or agitate. Sink or swim.


Thanks to https://twitter.com/fearlessdawn for this photo. ❤

Edited to add: I really enjoyed this long form piece by Kim Calder up at the LA Review of Books.  http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/the-denunciation-of-vanessa-place 

Do read it if you get the chance.

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