While working on my initial review of I’ll Drown My Book last spring (2011), I posed a few questions to the editors. Here are some of their responses…
To Laynie Browne:
Many of the characteristics you give for Conceptual Writing, seem to me, be able to also describe what “good experimental writing” ought to be, in some ways. Though I’m sure we would agree on the problematics of the term “experimental,” and maybe more so with “good” and “experimental” juxtaposed, I’m thinking about some of the features you mention: “a recasting of the familiar and the found,” as defined by “thinkership,” often filled with “an assemblage of voices,” “process is often primary and integrative,” “the unknown and investigative are common impulses,” “the desire to reveal something previously obscured,” etc. It seems to me many experimental writing projects would share these characteristics. Might you agree? What makes Conceptual Writing stand out from other experimental writing projects?
LB: This is an important question and I’d like to take this opportunity to proclaim that “good experimental writing” is not at all synonymous with Conceptual Writing.
Of course “experimental writing” is simply a much broader category that contains Conceptual Writing and yes, there is overlap. However “good” experimental writing (obviously defined variously depending upon the reader) follows many lineages and aesthetics with entirely different intents. For instance, New Lyric, New Narrative, Performance Poetry, Beat, some Ecopoetics work, (this movement is not aesthetically based) and other writers who consider themselves in what Anne Waldman has dubbed the “outriders” school of poetry all fit within “Experimental Writing.” I’d like to stress here that I have no interest in proclaiming Conceptual Writing as more important than any other mode of writing. The anthology illustrates a range of possibilities of what Conceptual Writing could look like. I’m not at all interested in a prescriptive approach as a writer or an editor, but instead in an investigative approach wherein everyone can read and decide for themselves. One way to define conceptual writing is by pointing to some of the most dynamic and well regarded “experimental writers” whose work I would not consider Conceptual, for instance: Fanny Howe, Eileen Myles, Lisa Jarnot, and Rae Armentrout.
You mention that the term “Conceptual” has become more democratic and wide-reaching, more opening and less closing. What is the significance that Conceptual Writing has for you in the context of the literary world in America today?
LB: My observation was not that I see Conceptual Writing has become more democratic, but that I hope that this anthology will encourage such an opening. Conceptual Writing seems to be gaining momentum as a movement, and at the same time becoming increasingly various, especially where women’s writing is concerned. I especially appreciate that Conceptual Writing very often moves outside the realms or the confines of the personal sense of the “I” and is very engaged in questioning assumptions underlying how we use language to perceive and define. My intent as an editor is to be certain that Conceptual works by women are well represented.
The process you describe for soliciting work was really interesting for me. How important is it that “Conceptual Writing” is a self-selected term? (That writers chose whether or not to classify themselves as such.) In other words, how important is intention in Conceptual Writing?
LB: Intentionality is always important in terms of how writers decide to cast themselves. Though the question is complicated in that writers are also often influenced by others’ readings of their work. Some have very strong opinions about how they are categorized Others do not. Ultimately it is a personal question for many writers. I can say that very few declined to submit on grounds that their work was not conceptual. Many writers addressed this question in their process statements. For instance, Norma Cole writes “I first knew I was a conceptual poet when I read Michael Cross’s review of my new book.” Ultimately, writer’s notions of belonging, or not belonging to any particular movement is as various as are writers themselves.
To Vanessa Place:
How do you see this anthology as an offshoot or continuation of your book Notes On Conceptualisms?
VP: Neither offshoot nor continuation, but rather another work within the field. Like Dworkin and Goldsmith’s Against Expression.
I love the use of the elephant parable as an analogy in your essay. And I think it’s more interesting in light of your idea that all conceptualism is allegorical. I know you’ve written about this in Notes On Conceptualisms, but can you say a bit more about this?
VP: I can, but not quickly.1
How do you see the term “conceptualism” related to “Conceptual Writing?” Why do you choose the former over the latter?
VP: To me, “conceptualism” includes conceptual writing, which I distinguish from conceptual poetry. “Conceptualism” referring to a kind of practice that does not necessarily implicate institutional critique or site-specificity in the way that “conceptual writing” or “conceptual poetry” does.
You admit that you don’t necessarily see all the writing in this anthology to be conceptual writing. How might you see these difficulties surrounding classification and intention be productive? How, also, are these difficulties problematic?
VP: Just as the masculinist tendency towards singularity is admirably clarifying, the feminist preference for multiplicity is commendably cant. On the other hand, singularity is sometimes promiscuous, and multiplicity may lead to monogamy—problems are productive, productivity problematic. Too, I enjoy arguing.
How do you see Conceptual Writing in the context of, for lack of a better term, the “experimental writing” world at large? How would you distinguish conceptual writing from such a term as experimental writing? Innovative writing? How might you respond to a term such as cognitive writing?
VP: I don’t know if I would respond to “cognitive writing” as such, absent some sort of stab at its own cognition. In terms of experimentation, innovation, etc, these seem more generalist terms, primarily useful for carving one hunk of crafted language from another, which is generally known as literature. Or other writing. But just as “art” refers to nothing in particular except the act of pointing, conceptualism is another indicative gesture.
1 Through the allegory a concept is always to be signified, and consequently the mind of the beholder is to be drawn away from the expressed perceptible idea to one which is entirely different, abstract and not perceptible, and which lies quite outside the work of art. (Schopenhauer)
To Teresa Carmody:
Les Figues Press has a long-standing history of publishing critical texts related to the innovative and avant-garde and of creating aesthetic conversations through the work. How do you see this anthology as fitting in with the press’s mission statement and as standing next to the other books in the catalog? How is this book also different from other books you’ve published, for example from Feminaissance and The noulipian Analects?
TC: Both Feminiassance and The /n/oulipian Analects came out of conferences hosted by Christine Wertheim and Matias Veigener; the contents of those books are limited to the conference participants, the people who performed at the conference are also in the book. That said, both anthologies initiated and/or encapsulated vital conversations—like “Numbers Trouble,” which Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young initially wrote for the Feminaissance conference. As editors, Wertheim and Viegener wanted to make an engaging aesthetic object out of the conference materials, so those anthologies also challenge notions of the “book” in their design and structure.
I’ll Drown My Book is different in that even though it too comes out of a conference (Marjorie Perloff’s 2008 conceptual poetry conference at the University of Arizona), the editorial gesture is more expansive– it’s about opening up the definition of conceptual writing, about posing the question what is conceptualism to writers who are also women who are writing works which, at least in part, may be seen as conceptual, at least by their own definition. I’ll Drown My Book is a feminist text in the way it creates a space for multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives of conceptualism. How does one create a definitive work while also embracing the feminist value of inclusivity? Or should one even attempt a definitive work?