The traditional poetic impulse is a refutation of language's inherent failures. It is the attempt to make language perform the impossible, to lucidly reconnoiter the ineffable. Metaphorical language is an acknowledgement of language's inherent downfall. Language is too tied to thingness, to objects and gestures (as Robbe-Grillet argues in “A Future for the Novel”) to plumb the depths of the human soul. This is not to say that metaphorical language does not have moments of beauty and grace, but those moments are the result of a larger failure. As poets, we attempt to bend language to our lyrical will. What results is inevitably a failure, but poetry exists in the degree to which the poem fails. (“An Irresponsible Act of Imaginative Language”)
Over the past fifteen years, Calgary poet, editor, publisher and critic derek beaulieu has been one of Canada's strongest and most visible champion of conceptual writing, and his new collection of “statements, essays, missives, and informal discussions,” seen of the crime: essays on conceptual writing (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2011) argues for the genre itself, as much as for a number of its practicioners. In thirteen short essays, beaulieu critically explores the work of bill bissett, Rob Fitterman, Gary Barwin, Emma Kay, Gregory Betts, Kenneth Goldsmith, kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Dan Farrell, Caroline Bergvall, Gilbert Sorrentino, Craig Dworkin and many others working forms of conceptual writing, and providing context for works that rarely seem to get any kind of acknowledgement, critical or otherwise. Long known for his own poetic conceptual works, his trade books include With Wax (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003), Frogments from the Fragpool: Haiku after Basho (with Gary Barwin) (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), fractal economies (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006), Flatland (York England: information as material, 2007), Local Colour (Helsinki Finland: ntamo, 2008) and How to Write (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2010), as well as being co-editor (with angela rawlings and Jason Christie) of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005).
The gall to call oneself a writer (and especially a poet) – with all the inherent cultural baggage – causes even more pause during those times when one isn't writing, when life has other plans, when one is between projects, or during that most-frightening period of “writer's block.” What do we go with the moments when we aren't writing? Are you a writer if you're not writing at all?
Enrique Vila-Mata's novel Bartleby & Co. is an essay by a fictional, frustrated, novelist. Vila-Mata's piteous, hump-backed, balding narrator last published a novel about impossible love twenty-five years previous and since that time hasn't written a single word. He “became a Bartleby.”
Bartleby, of course, is the eponymous character from Herman Melville's novella Bartleby the Scrivener who, in the face of capitalist expectation and responsibility, states that he simply “would rather not” have any active role in his own life other than that of refusal. Vila-Mata's unnamed narrator, in the face of a 25-year drought, explores the “writers of the No,” those writers who have decided to never write again. The book takes the form of footnotes for an imaginary essay. The notes build a history of writers, both real and imagined, who have decided that they were better served by not publishing (as typified by J.D. Salinger who did not publish a word after 1963's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction). Can not writing at all be a literary act? Can we consider that an author is adding to her oeuvre by ceasing to write? “(Besides, It's Always Other People Who Die”)
Part of what makes this small book so engaging is its brevity, packing a great deal into a small space, ranging from talks on one of Shakespeare's lost plays to Borges' imaginary library to calling bill bissett on his last thirty-odd years of publishing, in part for the fact that his seminal 1971 manifesto (read in its entirety a couple of years ago in Ottawa through jwcurry's efforts) “what fuckan theory—the key book in bissett's 45-year ouevre—remains out of print.” In this thin but substantial collection, beaulieu pulls few punches, providing essential criticism on work so rarely understood, or understood so well, and providing context for a range of materials existing on the sly margins of literature, a margin beaulieu manages to argue as the background, or even backbone, of so much other work that has been published since, often to wider attention.
bissett's manifesto flirts with what we would now consider conceptual writing, and includes a Sol LeWitt-like list of compositional strategies:
so yu dont need th sentenceyu dont need correct spellingyu dont need correct grammaryu dont need th marginyu dont need regulation use of capital nd lower case etcyu dont need sense or skillyu dont need thiswhat dew yu need
what fuckan theory argues that the last thing poetry needs is more poetry. The linguistic signals of effective communication are unneeded for bissett's poetics, for “all these [things] yu dont need are tools of war.” With what fuckan theory bissett argues that the best way of interrogating the political control of language is to intercede with a radical orthography which foregrounds the text's materiality of the text and the author's ideological independence.