Shock and Blah

My essay on conceptual writing and offensiveness is now live at The Volta. Thomas Trudgeon asked me to write it over a year ago, based on some initial conversations that we’d had, and here it is. A full year later.

I explore the way some conceptual works take on culturally traumatic language and re-present them in a poetry context, but the politics and motivations of the work are ambiguous. This ambiguity leads to offense for readers, who expect such culturally explosive materials to be treated in a recognizably respectful way.

One of my motivations in writing this essay was for me to suss out my own fascination with these texts and authors, and to try and understand the vehemence I’ve experienced in the conversations around them. I often found myself defending them, which you wouldn’t guess from my essay. Reflecting on these conversations with writers and friends whose intellect and social consciousness impress me, I started to wonder if my sense of neutrality and detachment towards the offensiveness in some “conceptual” writing wasn’t a defensive mechanism–a way of disarming them and letting me be “in” on them. These texts so clearly want to play on our affects–I didn’t want to give these texts that power over me. This imaginary cat and mouse over my feelings, alongside considerations of my social location, made me think about how the provocativeness was being used. I felt there was another gesture embedded in them. And so, this essay sprang forth.

I had many mini-conversations via email with some trusted friends who read a first version of the text, and then later with the editors for the collection. The attention and care that all my readers offered this work was impressive. It also took me to some new ground in how I engage these works, and the way that I framed my discussion.





“Conceptual” poetry

I had an incredibly exhausting trip out to Buffalo with some friends to participate in the small press book fair there. What an incredible space.

A lot of my friends out there fall into the “conceptual poet” category. This label fascinates me for who gets placed in it versus who does not. There seems to be a strong proceduralism and/or repetitiousness to the projects I have seen get read under this “conceptual” banner. And a provocation at the center of their work. Some might describe it as “offensive.” I am on the fence. I’m interested and alert to it because I haven’t quite made up my mind about what I think it’s doing. That in itself is very exciting to me.

But what about authors working in different shapes with different motivations behind their work? Nathaniel Mackey. Urayoan Noel. Myung Mi Kim. There is a sense of history at their center that they write around. Does this disqualify them from this label of “conceptual”? I’m inclined to think so.