[I’ve been asked to write a statement on the relation of my work to “conceptual writing”… and would appreciate any feedback on these thoughts…]
Even after reading the little blue book, Notes on Conceptualisms, I admit that I am not entirely sure what conceptual writing is not. I am pretty sure I know what it is, but I don’t know where exactly to draw the line that distinguishes it from what it is not.
I get that it is allegorical, but it is not allegorical in the standard way that A Pilgrim’s Progress or Paradise Lost are allegorical: these are teaching texts that ask us to become better people by reading them and comprehending their correspondences and how those correspondences relate to our lives. The new conceptual writing is allegorical in that it points outside itself to other structures it aims to critique, as opposed to structures we should obey and follow and be improved by. That critique may serve to make us more “conscious,” but that consciousness doesn’t necessarily improve us or make us virtuous. The old allegory tries to make us obedient; the new allegory is subversive, and asks us to be disobedient. Maybe, given the contemporary social frame, disobedience is the new virtue?
There are also so many practices listed in the little blue book (hence, plural conceptualisms) – “appropriation, piracy, flarf, identity theft, sampling, constraint” – all of which I gleefully subscribe to – that the term could almost spread out to cover just about all the writing I do and that I pay attention to. Considered VERY broadly, all writing, even historically, is all of the things in the list above, with the exception of flarf (a narrower and more culturally specific term): we simply cannot use language without appropriating, pirating, stealing identity, sampling, or constraining. Can we?
Thus, in my state of theoretical puzzlement, I can only say: When I write conceptual poetry I don’t set out to write “conceptual poetry.” When I “appropriate,” I can compare it to wandering in a field and seeing, oh, lupine, and Queen Anne’s lace, and mariposa lilies, and wild irises, and because they are beautiful (and grotesque, like all flowers) they compel me and I take them and arrange them, even though it may not be legal to do so. Flowers are nature’s readymades. Or maybe “appropriation” is like wandering in my neighborhood in Brooklyn (admittedly looking for poetry) and seeing a giant sign over a Russian nightclub that reads “EUPHORIA.” The “conceptual” mindset, then, is about looking and noticing: as Place points out (writing of the image as reference), “like any good art, it teaches you to linger.” Not just, I think, to linger: to somehow penetrate what is noticed until it penetrates you. There’s a kind of interinanimating ecstasy (Donne) in this.
I do not privilege obviously appropriated writing over a more Romantic interiorly generated writing (although the latter, as I mention earlier, is in a sense also appropriated): in fact, the sort of writing that most intrigues me most is that which (I have written elsewhere) performs a kind of pavan between these two modes, because that is how I experience the world, as input and output gracefully and/or shockingly affecting each other. I want to lay bare this affect to myself and to anyone who takes the time to read what I write. I’m very much with Place when she writes, “If there is superior art, it lies in the ability of any image – real or abstract, written or pictorial – to dropkick, lick, tickle and torture, to render its reader absolutely sensate.” [italics mine] Thus, the “purely” appropriated writing I do is absolutely subject to my authorial manipulation and editing in the service of that sensation.
Coda: Wondering… given the definition (or lack of definition) above… is the following poem (which I wrote when I was eleven or twelve) “conceptual”?
a poem in itself
a mathematical complicational digital3 figure.
Love – Beauty – Virtue – And other corny junk
Chinese Noodles and fried asparagus noses
but all it really is