“Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense,” Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman write in their 2009 booklet Notes on Conceptualism. “One does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.”
Conceptual visual art comes to terms with this problem. To paraphrase Sol LeWitt, the invisible idea behind conceptual artwork is enough, and the actual execution of it is a “perfunctory affair.” But what we traditionally think of as writing, or literature at least, resists such invisibility. The difference between the idea of a Shakespeare sonnet and the sonnet itself is what makes one a description of a poem and the other an actual poem. How do we approach writing as art when its particular linguistic configuration might be beside the point? Or, on the flip side, when reading poetry in which the concept is primary, how do we keep the idea foremost in our minds as we pay attention to the sounds, the textures, and the forms of the words on the page?
Don’t look for easy answers in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, an important new anthology that gathers the concept-driven work of 64 writers—or 68, if you include the editors and their prefaces, and you probably should. The anthology’s title, lifted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, suggests the same self-swallowing paradox evoked by Place and Fitterman, which in turn informs much of the thinking behind the anthology: the written aspect of conceptual writing is more or less a technicality. And yet the anthology itself collects and presents such writing (why else?) to be read.
Actually, there is a “why else” at stake here, a reason why this book is important beyond its work of selection and assembly. I’ll Drown My Book avoids both the invisibility of pure idea and the failure of the all-too material. It manages both a significant material presence and a significant and necessary concept. Embedded in the anthology’s paradoxical structure is an expanded, and newly politicized, vision of conceptual writing itself.
But set the concept aside for the moment; there’s much in I’ll Drown My Book to be encountered on the page. And much of it can be approached and appreciated just as we would approach a contemporary poem or prose piece that doesn’t rely on its compositional concept.
In fact, many of the methods and procedures meant to distinguish the work collected are in such widespread use that readers of recent poetry might find it difficult to see what, exactly, is so different or new here. Perhaps not surprisingly, techniques of erasure and appropriation are common: examples include Sharon Mesmer’s broadly defined practice of “appropriating diversely sourced material to generate language for prose and poetry,” Anne Tardos’s “nine words per line and nine lines per stanza,” the undisclosed “system” Danielle Dutton uses to reduce Madame Bovary to a handful of pages, and Yedda Morrison’s “biocentric” erasure of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Regardless of procedural detail, almost all selections appear in the book as the physical shadows of their source texts or concepts, while work such as Jen Bervin’s “post-loom,” which uses the typewriter to reproduce intricate textile patterns, seems intended not so much to be read as to be seen.
But choosing a representative excerpt, or even a few standouts, might be impossible: more than 450 pages long, the anthology is an enormously baroque, unruly assembly of women’s voices from around the world. It includes a spectrum of younger writers and writing in translation, a welcome influx of new names and directions that sent this reader, at least, excitedly off to the library (and beyond) for more. One could cite some notable omissions: the editors themselves mention Lyn Hejinian, Nicole Brossard, Leslie Scalapino, Monique Wittig, and others. But then again, the anthology claims neither to be exhaustive nor particularly uniform.
On the contrary I’ll Drown My Book seems designed to undermine any neatly conceptualized notion of conceptual writing. The anthology is divided into sections on “Process” (constraint, mimicry, mediation, translation, versioning); “Structure” (appropriation, erasure, constraint, formula, pattern, palimpsest); “Matter” (baroque, hybrid, generative, corporeal, dissensual); and “Event” (documenta, investigation, intertext, historicism, speculation). These sections shape the book, but it is difficult to see them as much other than a convenient structuring device, since labels are obviously not meant to be mutually exclusive and since most selections fall easily into multiple categories.
If conceptual writing aims to do away with the subject, why gather female writers?
In addition to the pages for her writing, each author is given space in which to make a statement about her work, as well as a brief biography. Some statements are more interesting than the work itself; some works serve also as statement; some statements are simply missing. Categorical definition from which to argue is replaced by a crucial question: Rosemary Waldrop, for example, calls her statement “Some Ambivalence About the Term ‘Conceptual Poetry’” and declares herself, on certain criteria, “certainly not a conceptual writer. . . . The execution is exactly what matters to me; not the idea, but what I do with it.” But, she continues, “On the other hand, when I think how often the matter of poetry is narrowly defined as emotion and perception only, the term ‘conceptual poetry’ begins to look very attractive, at least as a corrective.”
Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression (2011) makes an instructive point of contrast to I’ll Drown My Book’s expansive riot. Dworkin and Goldsmith take pains in their selections to delineate a long history of conceptual writing and to locate it in its contemporary historical moment: the reason, they contend, that “so many writers now [are] exploring strategies of copying and appropriation,” has much to do with the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of textual information. Taking serious stock of the situation of contemporary conceptual writing, its role, and its increasing prominence among (un-)creative paradigms, they lay out a situation of writing in which the writer’s model is no longer Orpheus but Echo, “loquacious, patient, rule bound, recontextualizing language in a mode of strict citation.” Re-casting Echo in this way makes her “an author rather than a victim.” But does it matter that the initial Echo (Dworkin quotes four lines from Ovid) has “no power of speech except the power / To answer in the last words she last has heard”? Does it matter that she is female?
The editors of I’ll Drown My Book would argue that it does. And it’s here that I’ll Drown My Book sets itself apart from the sort of anthologizing project that seeks primarily to define a group or explore a trend. This anthology does not set out definitive contours of, or even speculate about, the nature, value, or future of conceptual art; the paradox explored by I’ll Drown My Book is not exactly the paradox of pinning down a workable definition of conceptual writing.
Instead, I’ll Drown My Book deepens a preexisting debate over women’s writing and anthologies, focusing on the apparent incompatibility between the traditional authorial “self” or subject and the type of language or procedure often claimed by conceptual writing. The anthology’s contributors occupy both sides of that debate: Juliana Spahr voices the expected position—“the terms that make up one’s own writing are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author”—while Renee Gladman writes, “I really believe that my ‘I’ could not possibly be the same as yours.” Judith Goldman states the contradiction outright:
Constraint-based or w writing has often been characterized as a de-personalizing or non-subjective apparatus for composition. Yet it often comments quite acutely on habitus and praxis, and on subject-formation and -maintenance.
Simply put: If conceptual writing aims to do away with the subject, replacing it with textual process, what matter who’s speaking? Isn’t the re-instatement of “by women” an unnecessary and possibly essentializing move?
Considering the persistent gender inequality in most publishing, there’s an argument to be made for the simple necessity of a gathering of female writers. But the gendered work of I’ll Drown My Book extends beyond the corrective impulse. Conceptual writing becomes feminist writing as Echo does more than faithfully echo. Co-editor Caroline Bergvall quotes Kathy Acker: “I was unspeakable so I ran into the language of others”—the act of appropriation becomes an act of intervention, a strategy for expanding the range of what or who might be speakable, and how. The methods of appropriation (also distortion, attenuation, détournement, etc.) upon which much conceptual writing is founded vary inherently with the position of the appropriating agent. As Place and Fitterman note, “The absence of mastery is old hat for females and other others.” Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes:
There are strategies that pluralize authorship, not dissolve it, in order to acknowledge the multiplicity, the self-difference, the heterogeneity of the literary text, deliberately produced as multiple by its single author as an act of critical analysis, didactic intervention, and political critique. . . . I am this mix of hegemonic and emergent in relation to even the critical edges of that culture in which I am also saturated, and through which I have expressed my longing. Or part of that longing. Through which I have also expressed and exposed my resistance.
Even the multiplicity and variousness of the anthology might be cast as feminist in spirit, akin to the pluralization of authorship DuPlessis notes. In an interview with the online publication HTMLGIANT, co-editor Teresa Carmody remarks, “I’ll Drown My Book is a feminist text in the way it creates a space for multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives of conceptualism.” The anthology is a space for contradiction—a space not only for the paradox of defining conceptual writing, but also for the paradox of reading (or thinking) conceptual writing, and for the essential paradox of preserving feminist difference while re-imagining or even exploding notions of subjectivity and authorship.
It’s also, finally, a space of recognition and transformative potential. When discussions of contemporary writing and anthologies sometimes seem to rehearse the same circumscribed debates, I’ll Drown My Book’s new forms, voices, and challenges appear as new possibilities, unlikely and exciting. Or, again in Duplessis’ words, when, “every off chance is the index of what has already been articulated, opening onto the same scrubby field,” the “open book” is where “others might recognize their fate in mine as well as mine in theirs.”