Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Conceptual Poetry Feature—Issue 41, May 2014)

Housten Donham
Avant-garde Collaboration

David Lau has offered some thoughtful and sincere criticisms of conceptual poetry over at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. I’d like to respond by adding some nuance to a long and continuing argument among poets which I think is often generalized in far too simple terms.

There is a tendency among many in the contemporary poetic avant-gardes to classify, oppose, and generalize groups and individuals among us. These practices can be useful, and in many important ways they are necessary. But these arguments can also be trivial, malicious, and destructive. This is an exciting and thriving time in experimental poetry, and much of that enthusiasm and creativity has been birthed and sustained by the (often thankless) dedication of editors, digital and small press publishers, translators, and archivists. Much of this work is now being done online—the digitization of poetry and poetics has significantly enriched our work and widened access to it. As we move deeper into Web 2.0 or whatever it is that we’re doing right now, this is only becoming more developed and furthered. Some of this work (and some of the livelihoods of those individuals involved) has in the past been funded by private-public educational institutions, but the future of this support is in doubt.

As a young poet involved in many of these communities, both online and IRL, I’m regularly disappointed by the often petty criticisms directed at conceptual poetry (such as Calvin Bedient’s critique of “head poetry”). At the same time, I’m disappointed in the claims (and much of the work) by conceptual writers, many of whom regularly engage in insincere and self-aggrandizing apologetics when writing about conceptualism. The central problem in this perceived division, for me, though, is that it is, in many ways, a fantasy. Among the poets I know, these distinctions are more imaginary than not. We talk about conceptual vs. lyrical poetries only in the context of articles and books we’ve read, articles and books that create and sustain a belief in these isolated categories. Conceptual and non-conceptual poets have always collaborated with each other in many of the same communities and they will continue to do so. Some of the problems with “anti-conceptual” arguments is that they depend on a willed ignorance of this reality, encouraging us to imagine all conceptual writers to be like their Kenny Goldsmith caricatures: rich, politically apathetic, and isolated in ivory towers. Admittedly, this is a caricature that Goldsmith has himself helped to cultivate in order to further his own aesthetic ends. Nevertheless, this is why most anti-conceptual arguments usually descend into personal attacks on the writers involved, questioning their assumedly uniform allegiances to institutions and their social and economic privilege.

At the heart of most anti-conceptual arguments is the misinformed and frustrating assumption that the literary movement is made up of a handful of figures: Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, and, sometimes, Vanessa Place. If these were all of the “members” of this movement, the arguments of Lau, Bedient, and others would be, in some ways, sustainable and productive. But conceptual writing has exploded into many forms and has gone down many avenues; the poets involved in these practices are many, and they are diverse. Of course, as Teresa Carmody has noted, very few writers overtly and loudly identify as “conceptual.” But the interests, practices, philosophies, and people that inform conceptualism has already influenced the work of many of the “big” figures in contemporary poetry, among them Tyrone Williams, Tan Lin, Harryette Mullen, Stephen Ratcliffe, and Jen Bervin.

In his article, Lau writes that he is “wondering about what’s happening to some conceptual writing . . . that finds itself increasingly incorporated into neo-liberal capitalism’s hegemonic public-private cultural institutions.” A legitimate worry, since conceptual work has an air of importance now that is not just simply put on by its proponents (and opponents). But the writers that Lau is referring to (and he is referring to writers, not their work) are a handful of old white men who teach at esteemed cultural institutions. This really is “some conceptual writing,” the work of literally four or five individuals. This work does not a literary movement make. And if it ever did, that was in the 1990s.

It is my hope that the caricature of the typical conceptualist will come to be seen as obsolete as a new generation of avant-garde writers comes on the scene. This generation, the first to come of age in the 21st century, has been informed by a world mired in the financial terrorism of late capitalist predation. It is a generation that views MFA programs as a short-term respite from economic subjugation via precarious employment—a respite that has, unfortunately, become mired in the consumerist logic of the market. These writers also come from varied backgrounds and identities. One of the central criticisms of conceptual writers is that they are mostly male, cisgender, and heterosexual. As a criticism this might seem a bit unfair, but it is an accurate description of the central figures in early conceptual writing. However, collections such as I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women may demonstrate some possible solutions to these problems, which will come in the form of broadening and complicating our understanding of identity in regards to conceptualism, rather than viewing it as an inherently patriarchal and overwhelmingly privileged writing practice.

Perhaps most significantly, as poetry inevitably turns digital, sites such as Gauss PDF and Troll Thread point us to a radically new understanding of conceptual work. This is among some of the boldest and exciting poetic work being made today. These writers are nonchalantly and brazenly redefining poetry and writing. The avant-garde is hardly being co-opted; it is moving headlong into radically new territory. Meanwhile, many of the critics of conceptual poetry are stumbling to find the true essence of poetry in some romantic nostalgia, completely immersed in their fantasy of what poetry ought to be, what it once was, and what is now poisoning it.

One of the most fascinating elements of this new conceptual poetry, particularly, is how fundamentally political it is. These works deal with race, class, and gender in truly radical ways. Take, for example, Holly Melgard’s Reimbursement, which, through scanned images of lottery and scratcher tickets, examines the ruthless capitalist fantasies constructing state-sponsored gambling. Or Anna Vitale’s Street View Lyric, which examines the systematically racist construction of privilege in the surveillence of Google street view. These works propose difficult and important questions in new and dynamic ways—necessary elements in a legitimately avant-garde poetry.

That typical phrase that “All art is political” is invested with profound truth: we live in a culture in which all of our actions, including art-making, are formed and informed by the political. The mistake often made by critics of conceptualism is that they assume art that isn’t overtly and manifestedly political is necessarily conservative and in the service of neoliberal ideologies. The present is always invested with the political, but politics is a volatile phenomenon, constantly creating new, unforeseen common landscapes. What that might look like is not going to be found in past orthodoxies, but in an intensely lived present, which is precisely why avant-garde poetry may play an important role in imagining and living out those imaginary political alternatives.