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Bill Freind


Bill Freind is the author of two collections of poetry: American Field Couches (BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000), as well as the editor of Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada  (Shearsman, 2012). He teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.




Q: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conceptual art group called Art & Language specialised in producing art works utilising texts and lexical elements, whilst endorsing the theories of Marcel Duchamp, and holding the view that the practice of art should be methodically theoretical and separated from matters related to craft or aesthetics. These beliefs and procedures are echoed by practitioners of conceptual poetry, the most celebrated being Kenneth Goldsmith, who has spoken of Duchamp’s influence on his practice and that of other conceptual poets. Given these theoretical and procedural similarities between the Art & Language group and conceptual poets, in what sense is the work produced by conceptual poets significantly different from that produced by the Art & Language group, and, indeed, other conceptual artists working in the same area?


A: Here’s a more direct way of asking that question: “Is there any aspect of conceptual writing that’s truly new?” My answer is “Not really.” I think poetry has entered the stage in which the (perceived) novelty of conceptual writing has worn off, and conceptual techniques are simply part of the landscape. That’s not necessarily a problem, and it can be a very welcome development.


To explain that, I need to make a distinction between what Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman call pure conceptualism, i.e., work that follows Sol LeWitt’s claim that in conceptual art, “all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” If, as LeWitt (and Goldsmith, who appropriated LeWitt’s essay in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing”) suggest, “[c]onceptual art is good only when the idea is good,” we’re now at a stage where pure appropriation seems to suffer from a lack of good ideas.  


On the other hand, what Fitterman call “impure” or “post-conceptual” writing, which invites manipulation and intervention on the part of writer, seems much more productive to me. For instance, I find a lot of the “impure” work in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women to be very compelling.


Q: In ‘Kenneth Goldsmith, or The Art of Being Talked About,’ Robert Archambeau says that he thinks that Kenneth Goldsmith ‘often seems to believe in a linear, progressive version of artistic and literary history, a view that many people in the art world feel has been discredited’. Would you agree with this view?


A: Yes, to a certain extent, but I’m more interested when Archambeau says “Sometimes I find a bit of an Oedipal urge in him, a desire to dismiss the old kings so that the new, young king (let's call him Goldsmith) can ascend the throne.”


I think the apposite comparison is to Marinetti. In the first years of Futurism, Marinetti presented an explicitly Oedipal version in which the younger generation of Futurists would overthrow the older generation of Symbolist masters. He even says that Futurism would only last for about a decade, until a new generation of artists metaphorically killed them:


The oldest among us are thirty; so we have at least ten years in which to complete our task. When we reach forty, other, younger and more courageous men will very likely toss us into the trash can, like useless manuscripts. And that’s what we want!


If that’s what Marinetti wanted, he obviously changed his mind: the man who “wish[ed] to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort” later joined the Italian Academy and urged Mussolini to declare that Futurism would be the official State art.


Like Marinetti, Goldsmith has switched sides in the Oedipal struggle. He’s now the Kenny-Daddy, and he’s looking to preserve his position by, for instance, appearing on the Colbert Report and at the White House.


Q: Given conceptualism’s radical self-positioning of itself, do you think it is ironic that conceptualism has been championed and embraced by the academy?


A: It hasn’t been championed or embraced by “the academy.” I would guarantee that a substantial majority of poetics professors in North America and the UK are indifferent or hostile to conceptual writing. Conceptualism has been embraced by what I would call the Penn-Buffalo-Perloff axis. I mean that with no disrespect: those groups have been extraordinarily helpful in promoting innovative poetry. However, they don’t constitute a representative slice of the academy. In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s really no such thing called “the academy.” It’s a vague, catch-all term that obscures enormous differences in institutions and the individuals within them.


Q: Is conceptualism’s claim that it rejects what it sees as the “narcissistic selfhood” of much lyric poetry incompatible with its practices, given that so many of these practices revolve around the personality and showmanship of the poets involved, Kenneth Goldsmith being perhaps the most prominent example?


A: Goldsmith was trained as a visual artist, and I’ve always thought he recognized that few North American poets had successfully employed the self-promotion of, for example, the European avant-gardes, Andy Warhol, Chris Burden, or the Young British Artists (many of whom, appropriately, graduated from Goldsmiths College in London). In fact, with the possible exception of Allen Ginsberg, I can’t think on an American poet as dedicated to self-promotion as Kenny Goldsmith. He makes Warhol look like Joseph Cornell.


Goldsmith has never really acknowledged that the centrality of Kenny GoldsmithTM to his uncreative work is both ironic and essentially conservative: his critique of “creative” art is predicated on making the uncreative artist a celebrity. The sacred status of the work is replaced with the minor deity of the Artist.


The best critique of Goldsmith’s Cult of the Author is Kent Johnson’s Day, which is a copy of Goldsmith’s Day with the name “Kent Johnson” glued over Goldsmith’s name on the cover. Goldsmith, of course, performed a similar operation with his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” which is largely a transcription of Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” However, I would argue that Johnson’s gesture is much more provocative.


A video on the website of BlazeVox suggests that Kent Johnson was completely uninvolved in the production of the book: it shows publisher Geoffrey Gatza assembling the books with glue and an X-acto knife (after he fires up a bowl and puts on Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring). Johnson appears to have done no writing, typing, scanning, cutting, or pasting. His “work” was only an idea, which would seem to completely endorse LeWitt and Goldsmith’s claim that “in conceptual art/writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” Far from being merely a smart-ass response, Johnson’s Day highlights a point that Goldsmith apparently rejects: the anti-subjective, machine-like aspects of pure conceptualism should efface the Artist.


Q: Conceptual poets tend to be reluctant to engage directly with their critics, preferring instead to rehearse the theories regarding their practice in self-penned essays in various sympathetic publications etc. Why do you think this is? 


A: I really don’t know.


Q: To what extent do you think conceptualism sees itself as a serious poetic art form?


A: What’s “a serious poetic art form?” That seems like a phrase that should have gone out the window in 1909.


Q: How do you explain conceptualism’s rapid ascendancy within the academy?


A: As I’ve said previously, I don’t think there’s any one thing called “the academy.” However, conceptual writing has certainly enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, and I would argue that that’s due to its essential belatedness. A good slice of contemporary otherstream poetry can be called “post-avant,” a term that suggests we’ve moved beyond the avant-garde, and that has created a kind of nostalgia for those heady days of early to mid-20th Century innovation. So Goldsmith, and other pure conceptualists, came along at exactly the right time. Their work claims the mantle of the avant-garde, but it’s comfortably familiar: some Dada, a little Oulipo, a handful of Cage and MacLow, a bunch of Warhol.


I think Flarf is the perfect example of that nostalgia. Its wholesale recycling of avant-garde techniques is roughly equivalent to playing Dixieland jazz in 2014, complete with handlebar moustaches, arm garters and straw hats.


Q: What are the possible ramifications for the reception of lyrical and other sorts of non-conceptual poetry within the academy, now that conceptualism has been accepted as poetry by the academy?


A: I’m not trying to be difficult, but I don’t really see what’s at stake in that question. Do I think poets will write less “lyrical and other sorts of non-conceptual poetry?” Probably, but since approximately 99.9982% of poetry is non-conceptual, why would that matter? It’s not as if The Best American Poetry will suddenly stop publishing first person free verse about death or putatively transcendent experiences involving birds.


Q: US conceptual poets, particularly Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, have expressed a disinterest in poetry as having any sort of political dimension. This is in marked contrast to some other historical and contemporary conceptual art practices internationally, such as Berlin Dada, the Situationists, The Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (CADA) etc. Does this disinterest by US conceptual poets in exploring conceptualism as poetic-political praxis weaken claims to such conceptualism’s “radicalism”?


A: I think the premise of that question is mistaken. Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum is obviously political. Likewise, the political components of Place’s work are self-evident and overwhelming: it’s hard to say that transcripts from sexual assault trials and attempts to organize a performance of “coon songs” are apolitical, no matter how provocative and/or ill-advised they may be. Her attempts to downplay those screamingly obvious aspects of her work seem like a species of the disingenuous provocations that are standard in avant-garde manifestoes. They’re no different Marinetti’s claims that sex should be only for procreation, or that pasta should be abolished.


However, I do think that since Soliloquy (which I think is brilliant), much of Goldsmith’s work has been both aesthetically safe, and even complicit with state and economic power. Place and Fitterman claim that “[c]onceptual writing is allegorical writing”  because “the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion.” I think Goldsmith’s appropriations have lost that allegorical distance. They are reproductions drifting in a global of economy of reproductions. They disappear like water within water. They challenge nothing.


That was particularly evident in Goldsmith’s appearance at the White House, which drew some criticism from other writers. Linh Dinh wrote “[t]o be a minstrel for a mass murderer is nothing to be proud of… This just heightens my contempt for the state of American poetry. Did Bertolt Brecht dance for Hitler?” Yeah, the invocation of Brecht and Hitler is overstated, to put it very mildly, but I want to focus on the word “minstrel,” a word that I’m assuming Dinh uses to refer to a court entertainer, not to racist minstrel shows.


In the introductory remarks at the White House, Goldsmith called the readings “three short excerpts from poems about the Brooklyn Bridge.” “Short excepts” are of course what that crowd would expect – when speaking to (and for) state power, art can’t be challenging in any way, so while Goldsmith read from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” those excerpts are, predictably, safe: he includes none of the homoeroticsm in either poet’s work, none of Whitman’s non-Christian spirituality, none of the modernist techniques that characterize other sections of The Bridge. The video shows Goldsmith reading and discussing the work with all the earnestness and nuance of a second grade teacher.


All of that changes when he reads from Traffic, his transcriptions of traffic reports: his cadence and volume pick up, and his manner switches to something closer to that of a stand-up comic.


Here’s Goldsmith describing his reading:


The crowd, comprised of arts administrators, Democratic party donors, and various Senators and mayors, respectfully sat through the "real" poetry—the Whitman and Crane—but when the uncreative texts appeared, the audience was noticeably more attentive, seemingly stunned that the quotidian language and familiar metaphors from their world—congestion, infrastructure, gridlock—could be framed somehow as poetry. It was a strange meeting of the avant-garde with the everyday, resulting in a realist poetry—or should I say hyperrealist poetry—that was instantly understood by all in the room; let's call it radical populism. It was really fucking bizarre, to say the least.


Actually, it’s not fucking bizarre at all: the crowd responded to the section from Traffic because it was absolutely familiar and mildly entertaining, like a slightly eccentric cousin with a knack for family impersonations.


Kenny was brought to the White House to read poetry. He entertained them, and demanded nothing of them. Is it really unfair to call him a minstrel?


I think Fidget and Soliloquy are wonderful books, and UbuWeb is an extraordinary resource. But my major complaint is that Goldsmith has moved from conceptualism to the Art of Hype. The ideas behind his work are largely irrelevant now. What matters is how he can market himself.





copyright © Bill Freind