This post was meant to appear over a week and a half ago now, but maybe in the spirit of the book it references (Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman), it kept coming out in the form of tangled quotes or observations and never managed to become prose until today. I bought this book in late March a few days before its release at the Kitchen in Chelsea on March 31st, where the book—which starts at least three times within its own binding, with an introduction, the notes themselves, a related piece by Place, and a reading list—was reenacted ("Note the desire to begin again" (20)) via representation by examples of its subject in the form of presentations by Steve Zultanski, Kim Rosenfield, Jen Bervin, Nada Gordon, and Lytle Shaw. Text from Notes itself only showed up in Fitterman and Place's excellent introductions.
Notes on Conceptualisms is resistant to becoming the manifesto it appears, particularly in its unwillingness or inability distinguish between claims and accusations of what conceptual writing can and has done. The resistance lies in allowing (or forcing) self-referentiality’s occasional pride (“For an example . . . see Place . . . see Fitterman” (39)) to conspire with its admission or apology. At the same time, acceptance or praise of failure inscribes a second pride that comes after the admission—where success is measured, to some degree, by failure itself.
Kim Rosenfield introduced this context by beginning her reading by thanking Vanessa and Rob for having “tried to begin to define conceptual writing”. Trying/trying (ie attempting/bothersome) plays a central role in a method of artistic production that “draw[s] attention to the conflation of work (research and play (composing)” (32); “beginning” may carry more of a warning, and opens both the book and the reading up to the question of what has already begun versus what this book begins, especially with Fitterman’s forward acknowledging being “painfully aware that Conceptual Art was termed nearly half a century ago” (10).
But a book and a reading have beginnings of their own: the formers’ (after the forward) is “1. Conceptual writing is allegorical writing”. Now we know what’s news, at least, and the reading can begin (after its forward as well), with F&P introducing Steve Zultanski via the method of his own poem “My Death Drive” (listing his distance from different locations, which seem to be plantations or something similarly sinister, allowing pre/con-text to be the means by which a paranoid map/compass duo could locate the missing subject). Steve always reads faster than his breath can, throwing pages on the ground, a style that, like the work it delivers, lets inertia take the reigns.
I had just started reading the book on the train on the way to the reading, and Zultanski’s work suddenly made conceptualism-as-allegory very clear: he works in the exasperated list, allowing each sentence to “fall through” (the repeated phrase in the first poem he read) the referent of the next, always with an extended metaphor/meaning that hides something serious behind the more comfortable humor of the literal meaning, even performing the “saying what can’t be said” that allegory makes legible in a poem that collaged appropriated statements acknowledging international customs, revealing how collage and appropriated language enable an author to say the unsayable by making it clear that someone else did the saying first.
Nada Gordon started with a little teasing, offering Tips for writers, but quickly moved into asking-for-advice in a poem built of what sounded like subjects of online posts seeking urgent and horrified answers to female genital problems. Here, polyphony reveals either the terrifying illegibility of the vagina (or the internet) or a reassurance of some sort of universality: yeah, I have no idea what is growing on my labia, but at least a dozen other internet labia feel the same. If one of the standard features of allegorical (via conceptual) writing is personification, we have to think about personification's relationship to the calcification of diverse appropriated voices into one panicked authorial pronoun, the becoming-one-person that sentences undergo in borrowed writing, which meets the becoming-many-sentences one author undergoes in the same process.
This isn't all I want to say about the reading or the book, but a blog is a shorter thing, after all, and there'll be more room out here in space. But one last thing I couldn't get out of my head while reading/watching this book perform itself:
“Note that the absence of mastery is old hat for females and other others” (27)
If women are born into the status of the amateur, if women are somehow more comfortable with failure than men, then women may just have a disposition towards the kind of art that plays with rejection of mastery. Or, conceptual writing might mark a woman-becoming of poetry. This was most exciting to me when Kim Rosenfield was reading: she had selected text from many of her books that took the form of the recipe. I wrote a little about her work with the recipe in the essay that appears in re: evolution when talking about a moment in the text where “there is an imperative to become the author even in the recipe”, but when Notes warns us that “radical mimesis is original sin” (20), it reminds us that the recipe is a text that demands mimesis. It's a task (often a women's task) that asks to be repeated the same way every time, and the stakes for not-being-a-master are the stakes of the dinner table, of the family's rejection. The woman's alleged fear of not being the master of the recipe is well documented in countless offensive advertisements. The recipe's familiarity with the spell or the incantation warns that it may not be as mundane as it appears, but ultimately the recipe is an anxiety-inducing request for imitation: the best cook can deviate from the recipe and make it her own, but to fail at the recipe is strangely also to have gone astray.
The stakes for women as masters or as failed masters in conceptual writing seem high to me. One aspect of appropriated writing that often makes me uncomfortable—when the poet seems afraid to be associated with the borrowed texts, and all appropriation is delivered via the irony of the impossibility of the poet himself having said the lifted words—seems to be committed most often by men. That sentence is a problem—the value system in place there is my own, and sort of silly—I mean to say that appropriation sometimes invites texts in to subject them to critique and sometimes invites them in without that interference, often to interfere themselves to prevent the hardening of authorial perspective. The former seems more male and the latter somehow more female. If there is something “females and other others” know about not being masters, maybe there is something they know about not being authors, and we could all use a class on that.