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Don Share



Don Share is editor of Poetry and the author, editor, or translator of a dozen books.




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 Duchampís 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: Any time somebody talks about influence, Iím interested.  Yet I find it hard to generalize about conceptual poets, or any poets.  Iím not an expert on, practictioner of, conceptual art, but it seems to me that the similarities you describe are primarily foundational--influential: there are, in other words, sources of inspiration, to use a non-conceptual term, precedents and analogues. No surprise there, I guess. Itís important, though, not to conflate what Kennyís doing with the whole of conceptual poetry or to assume that he is somehow completely emblematic of it. I realize that heís become, for various reasons (some of which are quite amusing and also telling) the poster boy of conceptual poetry, but letís be careful not to let that obscure the work of others.  Anyway, the view that the practice of art, etc., should be separated from matters of craft or aesthetics, etc., is as old as the hills, and as picturesque; if poets can make that view new again, Iím all for it. But if the practice remains stale, no theory will come to its rescue.


Q: In ĎKenneth Goldsmith, or The Art of Being Talked Aboutí Robert Archambeau says that he thinks that Kenneth Goldsmith Ďoften 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 discreditedí. Would you agree with this view?


A: I donít agree, no. What makes Goldsmithís work valuable and interesting is that it fucks up the linear, and troubles ideas of the progressive. I like that he does this with wit, energy, fearlessness, panache--and a healthy sense of humor.  Every time he riles someone up, a conceputal angel earns its wings.


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


A: No. Why shouldnít people in the academy champion or embrace whatever excites or interests them?  But who are we talking about here? There are some academic folks who are widely known, but there are also the many who teach, as it were, in the trenches. In any case, I donít see much sign of a monolithic acceptance of conceptualism--far from it. I get around a lot in my line of work, and most of the students I run into would flunk a test on the subject conceptual poetry. How many conceptual poets or artists can a typical student name?  Not many, Iíll wager. If academics teach conceptual poetry, write about it, express opinions about it, that seems well within their purview. Hell, Iíd take a course in it myself!  A more interesting question is how effective the championing of a particular kind of work by the academic world really is.


Q: Is conceptualismís claim that it rejects what it sees as the ďnarcissistic selfhoodĒ 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: Itís not incompatible with it, and thatís what gives it its polemical energy and charm. But again, I caution that the focus solely on Kenny both proves and distorts the point embedded in that question. 


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 actually see lots of engagement of conceptual poets with their critics, but thatís because I spend too much time on the internet, which is where most of this takes place. 


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


A: I donít know, and my not knowing seems somehow to the point.


Q: How do you explain conceptualismís rapid ascendancy within the academy?


A: Ascendancy? Most college and university literature courses teach the same kinds of things they always and traditionally have, with the occasional novel twist, seminar, or sideline. There are specialized courses that take on such things as conceptualism, no doubt; but most students will get survey courses and a smattering of other subjects large and small. Probably, it should be taught more.


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 donít know the answer to that, and canít wait to find out. The idea, though, of an academy with a capacious sense of what can be accepted as poetry sounds salubrious to me. 

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 conceptualismís ďradicalismĒ?


A: Is this true? Donít Goldsmithís recasting of American disasters in his most recent book and his compilations of September 11th newspaper writing have a political dimension?  These seem to me to have obvious political resonance. Vanessa Placeís work directly addresses the way our legal system and economy operate; again, this seems quite pointedly political to me.  As I write this, sheís also engaging race relations, and that, too, is explicitly political.  As to whether or not itís radical, well, thatís another question altogether. Maybe itís radical by default.


Iím not, in all the foregoing, attempting either to defend or critique what conceptual poets are up to. I just donít see why people can get so aggravated about what these poets do. Is the spectrum of contemporary poetry not broad enough to accommodate their work? If not, why not? A century ago, people were scandalized by Prufrock, The Rite of Spring, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and countless other modernist works. Are people today really so shocked or annoyed by conceptual poetry? If so, these poets are onto something. If not, then we havenít learned from our own literary history; and worse, have arguably become inured to that which is truly shocking: the things that go on in this world. Though not without its foibles like all else in poetry, conceptual work is a legitimate and probably inevitable response to ďlyric narcissicm,Ē text-fettered writing, dullness, complacency, boredom, and much else besides. If it didnít exist, it would have to be invented.





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