We don’t know what “conceptual writing” is, but we do know is that it still feels too early to talk about in any definitive fashion. We’ve read Against Expression and I’ll Drown My Book, and we like them both a great deal. What we appreciated about these books was just how different they were—how different a picture of conceptual writing they presented—and how this difference made us feel that conceptual writing might become a widely expansive and inclusive territory.
If the pairing of these first “conceptual” anthologies instilled a great deal of optimism, the popular discourse surrounding conceptual writing continues to disappoint. More than the common misreadings of partisanship, this feeling comes from the way that polemical rhetoric has largely warped the discourse into arguments against other arguments, rather than considerations of actual work. Over the past years, we’ve seen countless arguments both “for” and “against” conceptual writing, yet the positions of both sides always seemed premature. More often than not, these pieces spoke at cross-purposes. Where one looked at writing X to posit conceptual writing as the pinnacle of poetic innovation, the other used writing Y to assert the larger field as usurping radical poetry all together.
As editors, we are not here to take a side in any of this. We’d like simply, and briefly, to reframe the discourse.
We acknowledge that this may prove a wholly naïve gesture, but we wonder if the “problem” of conceptual writing might be only a confusion of terms. In all the polemics we read, what we noticed even more than the very genuine passion on either “side” was a real uncertainty as to what “conceptual” signified when applied to “conceptual writing.” Because so many of these pieces held up different works, personalities and even institutions in their analyses, it seemed perfectly reasonable that they would disagree. After all, how could we possibly find common ground when the territory continues to shift below us?
It is our hope that with time, a great deal of these differences will not so much disappear as seem less significant. We imagine a time in which we might largely agree on what conceptual writing was and did in the early 2010’s, even if we continue to disagree on its value.
Until then, we posit not what conceptual writing is, but simply what it has come to mean to us in our very specific (and limited) communities. This is in no way to claim that our communities are in any way authoritative—quite the opposite. It is meant only to show one of many frames through which the phenomenon of “conceptual writing” continues to develop. In doing so, we hope also to inspire a consideration of those innumerable other frames to which we do not have direct access.
We have asked a small number of friends, friends of friends and members of our extended writing communities to respond to the field known as “conceptual writing” as it appears to them. These writers reflect the diversity of our communities while also embodying their limitations. By featuring this intensely local collection of writers, we seek also to inscribe our own geographic limitations and aesthetic biases as editors.
These texts were chosen with the following criteria in mind:
This collection is in no way definitive. Nor does it represent our own positions. As editors from LA and Georgia respectively, both living in Philadelphia, we wish only to represent a brief moment in the literary narrative that we are coming to know as “conceptual writing.”