Friday, February 28, 2014

Robert Sheppard Interview on new online journal Colony

The new online journal from Dublin, COLONY, has just gone live.It is an exciting magazine, featuring poetry, fiction, non-fiction, music, spoken word (a good innovation there) and translation. Each has a separate section. In TRANSLATION there is an interview, conducted by Anamaria Serrano, with me about the Rene Van Valckenborch 'translations' published in A Translated Man. (There are lots of posts about that on Pages.) The issue is themed 'Counterfeits, Fakes & Hoaxes', and I feel a little of at least one of those since the 'translations' are fictional (and the others are real!). Read it either through the 'Translation' link above or here. It was conducted a few months ago, immediately preceding the interview with Chris Madden for The Wolf which you can still read here.

The interview has now moved to the archives of COLONY, and may be found here too:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bill Griffiths Ghost Stories on Pages

In 2005 I read a marvellous ghost story in Neon Highway written by Bill Griffiths. I told him what I thought of it and he said he had more, both published in book form (Seaham Tales) and unpublished. I offered to publish six new ones - and did so, on Pages, one per month. To celebrate his new Collected Poems but also aware of his absence, here are the links to the ghost stories. Enjoy this English municipal Gothic, Griffiths-style. I hope you don't mind these raw links. They are numbered.

And my reading of Bill's The Book of the Boat here

(Note: the image at the top comes from the Poetry Buzz in 2005, a celebration for Allen Fisher, with Lawrence Upton, Rob Holloway, usefully holding the amp, Bill reading, Allen listening: Brixton. There's another picture of Bill waiting to read at Edge Hill University here.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Robert Sheppard More Traces of Poetry: Vanessa Place and Form

                                                                              Vanessa Place telling us that money is poetry

Read an earlier piece here on Conceptual Writing. It examined Vanessa Place's contention that 'Form doesn't matter'. Like this posting it it an early draft of a critical work in progress on form.

Vanessa Place's Statement of Facts consists of appropriated statements of the ‘facts’ of sexual assaults, collected unedited from her work as an appellate criminal defence attorney. Kenneth Goldsmith describes a public reading by Place, as he formed the text in his response (clearly responding to her undeniable authoredness, despite the compromised provenance of the words spoken): ‘When you hear Place read these words,’ and Goldsmith responds to three quarters of an hour of this live material, ‘you realize that the vile content of the work is just the tip of the iceberg. What happens to you, the listener, during the reading,’ is the work’s significance. (Goldsmith 2011: 104) ‘I am asking the reader to bear witness, or to choose not to,’ Place explains, emphasising the balanced ethical positioning of the listener.[1] ‘Either way, they become complicit.’ (quoted in Goldsmith 2011: 105) ‘The first reaction is of shock and horror… But you keep listening. It’s hard to stop,’ affirms Goldsmith. ‘The narrative draws you in.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 105) One paragraph reads:

The man fumbled, touching Barbara B.’s breasts with his hands and mouth, then put his penis in her vagina. She could not tell if he ejaculated or withdrew, but he put his penis in her vagina a second time; he also orally copulated her. Barbara B. did not feel a glove on the man’s hand. Throughout, the man continued to tell Barbara B. he only wanted to make love to her and not to hurt her. After, the man told Barbara B. he was going to leave and she should count to fifty. She started counting to herself, he told her to count out loud. As Barbara B. heard the man leave, she asked him to close the door so her cats wouldn’t get out; she heard him go through the kitchen and close the sliding door as he left. Barbara B. then called the police. (RT 917-920, 925) (Dworkin and Goldsmith 2011: 491)

Place’s role as a ‘mouthpiece’ here may be as much a defence for herself (and a hopeless one perhaps) as her ‘real’ defence of the accused in the courtrooms of her day job. Experiencing the staged situation of the reading (Place dresses as an attorney in performance), Goldsmith reports on the effects of this (upon him). ‘I had been transformed from passive listener to active juror,’ Goldsmith realised at some point. ‘She actually transformed my position as receiver of the work, spinning me around in ways that were very much against my will. I didn’t want to objectify my experience but I did. Place used passive coercion’ to engender his complicity, he claims. (Goldsmith 2011: 105) It may seem indelicate at best, or immoral at worst, to attempt a formalist analysis of ‘vile content’, but Goldsmith has already indicated that the content is not everything here. To be moved from a subject position of listener to one of witness requires more than passive coercion perhaps. The most significant formal marker of Statement of Facts is its sheer relentlessness; second is the non-everydayness of the language, the matter-of-fact tonality that records incidents of extreme human behaviour (Place reads it deadpan).[1] We are told ‘he put his penis in her vagina’ twice with the same form of words, a choral device at odds with a rule of expository prose that prefers variations of phraseology over repetition (though, and perhaps because, that is a ‘poetic’ device). ‘He also orally copulated her,’ is an odd distanciating phrase given that the previous statements had been gynaecologically detailed. The following sentence also topples our equilibrium, partly through lack of narrative cohesion: ‘Barbara B. did not feel a glove on the man’s hand.’ Amid the statements of fact, this negative seems all the more (horribly) significant. The oddness of the expression (and oddness is often, or elsewhere, a marker of ‘poetic’ language, both in ancient poetic diction and modernist defamiliarisation) conceals the forensic fact that the man may have left fingerprints elsewhere. Accidental poetic artifice appears in the victim’s name, as it reappears in its abbreviated form; when combined into the collocation ‘Barbara B.’s breasts’ its alliteration seems excessive, inept, tongue-twistingly so if read aloud. ‘She started counting to herself, he told her to count out loud’ is an ungrammatical broken-back sentence, but it feels right to balance the ‘she’ at the start of the sentence and the ‘he’ that answers it in this way. A semi-colon would have been more accurate; two are used correctly in the paragraph to join two statements into sentences, so this was a matter of artifice on the statement-taker’s part. This scribe, to use the ancient term descriptively, is not to be confused with the author Vanessa Place (though Place may have taken the statement). It is Place who has framed the writing, thereby authoring it, as a literary text (as this reading is interpreting it as a literary text).
The poignancy of the conversation between the rapist and victim (to use terms that the statement must avoid at all costs) about her errant cats in this narrative is grotesquely incongruous (partly because in other situations it might be comic). Inconsequential but precise, it is a statement of a fact that may or not be legally important. The unease it evokes may be akin to the unrelated guilt that an examination of diction, grammar, punctuation and alliteration, such as mine, in such a horrific case, engenders. The reference numbers that dot this and other passages of Statement of Facts operate to de-automatize our responses by interrupting the narrative that clearly does not just ‘draw you in’ as Goldsmith reports. The paragraph (the work generally) does do that, but it does more, through operations of form, to disable the reader or listener, and draw him or her into a disruptive formal world of substantiated statements in distanciated sentences. Form operates to make or re-make the text, to frame it and to partly unframe it again by foregrounding poetic devices and prose conventions (and heightening tension between them). More accurately form only appears in acts of forming, which are only operative when the reader or listener per-forms the text for his or her self (and that gender difference may well be quite important to the mode of performance undertaken). It is during these engaged acts of forming discrepant and incongruous elements that Goldsmith (for one) experiences the feeling of complicity he describes so eloquently.
 How complicit can we feel, though, when North American TV programmes such as C.S.I : Crime Scene Investigation and its offshoots, and a specific series of Law and Order, Special Victims Unit (or in Britain, The Vice), routinely transform sexual crime (often violent and fatal) into mainstream entertainment? The answer must lie (despite the appropriative techniques used by Place) in the felt authoredness of the statements, in the feeling that ‘the experience of the inventive literary work … arises not from the content of the invention’ – and Goldsmith has directed our attention away from that in Place’s work – ‘but from the reader’s performance of it – and its performance of the reader.’ (Attridge 2004: 102) The ‘mouthpiece’ utters a text only minimally transformed (this is an example of one of Goldsmith’s younger writers ‘literally moving language from one place to another’ (Goldsmith 2011: 3)) but text transformed enough (and well enough) for the kinds of readerly per-formance re-enacted above. The form of the ‘statement’ rubs ever so uneasily against the form of the ‘facts’. Formal concerns are central to conceptual works, it seems, though form may be their repressed that has yet to return in their poetics. (More on form here.)

Works Cited across the last three posts. To see links to these and other posts relating to my The Meaning of Form project click here.

You can read about my own recent poetry here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase. )

You may read my 'How to Produce Conceptual Writing' here.

Attridge, Derek Attridge. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author’, in Heath, Stephen, tr. Roland Barthes: Image-Music-Text. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977: 142-148.
Eds. Dworkin, Craig, and Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Morris, Simon. Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head at (accessed 31 January 2014)
Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Place, Vanessa: (accessed 31st January 2014)
Popper, Karl. Unended Quest. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1976.
Rasula. Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

[1] See her reading at (accessed 4 February 2014).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robert Sheppard: A Note on Self-Expression and Conceptual Wriitng

Kenneth Goldsmith secretly expressing himself with the Printed-Out Internet

The ‘secret’ of Uncreative Writing, so far as Goldsmith is concerned, is that ‘the suppression of self-expression is impossible’. (Goldsmith 2011: 9). This is offered as though absorption in acts of poesis are as self-expressive as he thinks his reader might expect other kinds of writing to be, though not in the same way. ‘The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 9). But this plea to self-expression (which he erroneously equates with acts of creativity) is self-defeating. ‘The expressionist theory of art is empty,’ writes Karl Popper, for the same reason that Goldsmith seems to valorise it: ‘For everything a man or animal can do is … an expression of an internal state.’ (Popper 1976: 62) If this is so then self-expression ‘is not a characteristic of art’. (Popper 1976: 62) For a formalist the quality of poesis must be the characteristic of art; in other words what Goldsmith calls ‘the act of choosing and reframing’. Such an act does not tell as story about ‘us’; it makes a form in the world of forms and that is where the true humanity of creativity and uncreativity is to be located: in the shaping acts of homo faber.

(See all the links to my The Meaning of Form project, including others relating to conceptual writing here.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Robert Sheppard The Trace of Poetry: Notes on Conceptual Writing and Form

 Vanessa Place says: ‘Form doesn’t matter.’ I am writing a critical book that suggests that form does matter, that poetry (including the best of conceptual writing) is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. The pun upon ‘means’ is intended to enact the supposition that if poetry does anything it does it chiefly through its formal power and less through its content, though it also carries the further suggestion that form is a form of meaning in its own right, that form is matter. But then ‘Content doesn’t matter,’ she says (missing the pun she could have used: ‘subject matter doesn’t matter’, or, even better, ‘matter doesn’t matter’). Perhaps form and content shouldn’t complain too much because she also says, ironically speaking for herself: ‘Authorship doesn’t matter,’ a specialised truism (by which I mean this is true in a specialised sense) ever since Roland Barthes and the theory of the death of the author. Just to complete, she adds: ‘meter doesn’t matter’. (This would logically follow from the dismissal of form.) The statement has form itself, of course, but that doesn’t matter; form is disavowed in a formal litany: ‘Authorship doesn’t matter. Content doesn’t matter. Form doesn’t matter. Meter doesn’t matter.’ She adds: ‘All that matters is the trace of poetry.’ It is interesting to see the word ‘poetry’. (Goldsmith makes the same point about Christian Bök continuing to use the word ‘poem’ for quite unusual ‘writings’ when, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Caroline Bergvall shies away from both words, although she allows herself to think of her scriptural practice as ‘poetic’.)
What, from my point of view, could the ‘trace’ of poetry be but its formal (and therefore material) markings?  
‘Put another way, I am a mouthpiece,’ says Place, thus bringing the statement back to her opening gambit about authorship. This is a description of Roland Barthes’ ‘scriptor’, assembling texts from fragments of other writings, a situation literalized by recent conceptual writing, but here adapted to an oral/aural metaphor, in a way that is also reminiscent of centuries-long theories of inspiration (like the ones analysed in Jed Rasula’s marvellous Modernism and Poetic Inspiration (2009)) : ‘I am a mouthpiece.’ To re-cap, and to re-form (and to prove, as Veronica Forrest-Thomson did years ago in Poetic Artifice, that ‘mere’ poetic lineation effects a formal transformation of prose content, even when that content attempts to un-ironically say ‘Form doesn’t matter’):

Authorship doesn’t matter.
Content doesn’t matter.
Form doesn’t matter.
Meter doesn’t matter.

All that matters is
The trace of poetry.

Put another way,
I am a mouthpiece.

‘From the Greek Muse to modern cybernetics – from divine infusion and mediumistic spell to noise-free channels and optimal bandwidth – poets have identified strategies to gain access to some enabling prompter,’ Rasula argues, that will render the poet a ‘mouthpiece’, somewhat lacking in agency but full of awe. (Rasula 2009: 2) It is possible to see the self-confessed ‘cyberutopianism’ of Kenneth Goldsmith in this light. (Goldsmith 2011: 226-27) So can his assertion that perspiration replaces inspiration in recipe-art, and the insistence of conceptual writing on ‘appropriation’. ‘Appropriation’ is what I take being a ‘mouthpiece’ implies (despite the switch from active perspiring agent to open conduit), specifically in Place’s usage: her Statement of Facts consists of appropriated statements of the ‘facts’ of sexual assaults, collected unedited from her work as an appellate criminal defence attorney. (See a video of her reading this work here.) Conceptual writing and appropriation, Goldsmith argues, are the cures for writer’s block or, more positively, they are the supreme ‘enabling prompter’, the postmodern Muse. Taking a lead from the seminal conceptual art practice of Sol LeWitt and Yoko Ono, he instructs us: ‘There’s a well-honed tradition of adopting mechanical, process-based methods that help make the decisions… Scores of artists swapped perspiration for procedure, thus expiating the struggle to create.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 128) Uncreative writing, quite precisely. Similarly, ‘In a time when the amount of language is rising exponentially, combined with greater access to the tools with which to manage, manipulate, and massage those words, appropriation is bound to become just another tool in the writers’ toolbox, an acceptable – and accepted – way of constructing a work of literature, even for more traditionally oriented writers.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 124) (Surely many of us have done that for years?) This is an interesting remark about conceptual writing because it implies that it is not an avant-garde, that it is already assimilated into the mainstream (can you imagine Bruce Andrews reading at The White House?) and is popular, populist and democratic. Goldsmith says as much: he calls Robert Fitterman’s inventory of trade marks, the list poem ‘Directory’, one of the ‘truly populist expressions: what could be easier to understand than a list of mall stores, reflecting most American’s daily commutes past and common interactions with our endless malls’. (Goldsmith 2011; 100)
‘Unoriginal geniuses’ (Perloff’s term and book title) write ‘uncreative writing’ (Goldsmith’s term for conceptual writing and book title). Goldsmith, the most flamboyant member of this grouping, is involved in pedagogy, the teaching of these forms, which are antagonistic to the emphasis upon good form, pattern, meaning and convention in straight ‘creative writing’, with its supposed emphasis upon originality and craft. These New Critical terms are prevalent in Creative Writing teaching, but by no means as widely-distributed as he assumes (certainly not in my teaching). Such values do not matter to Goldsmith: instead of asking his students to write a story in the style of Jack Kerouac he instructs them to write out (word for word) a Kerouac piece and to ask them to describe the effects of the process (from cramp in the hand to noticing certain patterns in the language). Obligingly, one British writer, Simon Morris, has blogged the book page by page (which, of course, appears in reverse order in blog formatting at but Goldsmith’s prime exemplar of book-based conceptual writing is his own Day, a 700 page writing out of an edition of the New York Times, with no images and no change of type-size for headlines or adverts. The result feels like a weighty masterpiece and is weirdly fascinating in parts (the forgotten main news or human interest stories) as well as deeply and deliberately boring in others (pages of stock exchange statistics). The pagination often dissects stories and fragments the reading experience in ways we do not notice reading a newspaper, either passing on to a contiguous story (if uninterested) or turning to the continuation page (if motivated enough). In its mechanical way, it is not unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, a detailed panoramic presentation of one day, a much better analogy I think than the common one of Benjamin’s Arcades project. Goldsmith says the reader does not have to read his books because the concept in conceptual writing is often more important than the result, though it has to be a good concept. Garbage in: garbage out, as early computer engineers used to say (a phrase oddly Goldsmith never uses). Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which he edited with Craig Dworkin, operates like a textbook for new writers and its formal experiments include re-writing texts (last night’s TV or The Bible) from memory; taking the first page/sentence/word of one text and joining it to the first of another, and so on; taking a text and re-arranging all the sentences (or the words, or even all the letters) alphabetically or through some other arbitrary formal principle; listing every book/possession/trade-mark you own or see; recording every word you (or somebody else) utters for a set period of time; amassing every document about you (official and private) to compose a re-formed self-portrait.
The readership of such a work becomes a ‘thinkership’, admiring the work’s conceptual acuity, conceptual forms, rather than literary skills. The ultimate in appropriative text is straight plagiarism or self-quotation. Plundertextualities of various kinds underwrite most of these patchwriting experiments. However, the irony for me is how quickly conceptual writing has taken hold of the avant-garde imagination and then infiltrated the mainstream (when Goldsmith read at the White House he wowed the audience with his rendition of appropriated traffic news broadcasts), in other words: how rapidly forms of uncreative writing have become exercises in creative writing (although Goldsmith allows for that, as I show above).
              Is it true that we do not need to read these works (although Goldsmith only speaks of his own)? Perloff knows that we should not necessarily trust poetics as a speculative writerly discourse, partly because it is speculative and partly because it can be obfuscating, deliberately so, for the author, necessary to keep him or her active. She writes boldly: ‘Nothing but an actual reading of the text can clarify the questions of choice and chance that arise here and elsewhere’ as a preface to a detailed close reading of Traffic. She ‘puts aside … Goldsmith’s insistence that his books are “unreadable”’. (Perloff 2010: 149) This is one model to follow in the reading of this work.1      
‘Questions of choice and chance’ must, at some level, be formal issues, but much of the poetics of conceptual writing deals with its content (even though Place, who perhaps should be overruled in the same fashion Perloff overruled Goldsmith, says ‘content doesn’t matter’). Call it data, information, verbiage, it is still the materiality of its offering forth. Goldsmith writes of ‘younger writers … boldly appropriating the works of others without citation, disposing of the artful and seamless integrating of … patchwriting. For them, the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another, boldly proclaiming that context is the new content.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 3) Even the most New Historicist-baiting formalist would not deny the role of context in determining the reception and thus the meaning of a statement, but if context is the new content, what is the new form? I do not think the answer lies simply in technology. Goldsmith continues: ‘While pastiche and collage have long been part and parcel of writing, with the rise of the Internet, plagiaristic intensity has been raised to extreme levels.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 3) This is true but is merely expressed in terms of appropriating content more rapidly.
            The transformative potentiality of technology might be more important; in other words, its formal implications. When Goldsmith notes, ‘The Flarf Collective has been intentionally scouring Google for the worst results and reframing it as poetry’ the results may not be important (‘Content doesn’t matter’) but the reframing, the formal re-functioning of the content, whether by ‘choice or chance’, whether by using a robotic ‘data-mining program that combs social networking sites’ like Darren Wershler’s and Bill Kennedy’s Status Update, or by more consciously Google-sculpting (as the recent Flarf term has it), transformation is the issue for me, my study, and my writing, creative or other-wise. (Goldsmith 2011: 185) Importantly, for Goldsmith, it is reframed ‘as poetry’. Formal concerns are central to conceptual works (though that may be its ‘repressed’ that has yet to ‘return’). I am tempted to say that ‘All that matters is the trace of poetry,’ so long as we realise that the trace of poetry is formal (and recognise the interinanimation of form and content, perhaps even more pronounced with technological sophistication at the heart of much, though not all, of this poesis).
            Once the role of transformation is established, questions can be asked of conceptual writing that are formal in nature but also pertain to its literary value (I’m daring to use that unfashionable phrase). ‘An actual reading of the text can clarify the questions of choice and chance that arise here and elsewhere,’ as Perloff says, one that might ascertain whether the text transforms its materials (which it can achieve by simply re-framing, by simple presentation, as well as by sophisticated formal manipulations). ‘What could be easier to understand than a list of mall stores, reflecting most American’s daily commutes past and common interactions with our endless malls,’ asks Goldsmith. But – and this is an open question of Fitterman’s work, which I have only seen in excerpt in Goldsmith’s book – can it transform itself formally (it’s formally a list), perhaps even to the point where it might be able to pose non-formal questions (form is cognitive after all, not just a container): why there are endless malls, why are the American people on their daily commutes? It must offer resistance through its form. As Adorno said: ‘Form that has become reified with regard to its other is no longer form.’ (Adorno 1997: 220) And forms tend to be difficult, not easy, to understand.
One section of my recent (poetics journal-sculpted) ‘Eight Notes’ (a part of Unfinish, a work in progress) runs:

‘While the conceptualists plagiarise other people’s content, I plagiarise their forms,’ he said again, quoting his allegedly fictional poet. The interruption of abstractions and their real violence. ‘Something has to be formed and transformed or a concept stays the same,’ he said, for himself.

That’s the thought (and the irony) I’m aiming for here. It’s interesting that it’s better said in poetics.  But it must be proven (elsewhere) as analysis. By the way, the allegedly fictional poet was called Plunderhead.

Kenneth Goldsmith reads Traffic at The White House here

1. It is also a resistance to its poetics which threatens, in the ultimate triumph of poetics as a discourse, and its limit case, to be more important than the art works themselves. This is an obvious success for poetics because it elevates a supplementary or at least complementary discourse to primary position. It elevates the concept over the performance, of course, as in Sol LeWitt’s famous: ‘Ideas can be works of art… All ideas need not be made physical.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 132) In a sense poetics becomes the work of art, but poetics may lose its potential as a speculative discourse, which is what I value it for. By becoming the work, it is its own poetics, reified, fixed, unchanging. However, this is not the main thrust of what I am saying here but an important aspect of conceptual writing, one I would pursue if were (still) writing a book about poetics. See chapters concerning poetics in my When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry; my Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26; and my blogzine Pages (, which carries a serial catalogue of poetics under the title ‘The History of Poetics’, posted August- November 2009. Self-expression would be another issue. But form is my theme.

There is a continuation of this post here.

There is also a long footnote to this piece about the function of self-expression in conceptual writing here. Only a few of the hundreds of people who read this piece find that one.

And here you can see all the links to my posts relating to my The Meaning of Form project.

You can read about my own recent poetry here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

I also offer advice on 'How to Produce Conceptual Writing' here.

And now here's Kenny G in Playboy. 'When I'm bored,' he says, 'I tickle the social media machine in order to make it wiggle.'

Works Cited

Eds. Dworkin, Craig, and Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Goldsmith, K. Uncreative Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Place, Vanessa: (accessed 31st January 2014)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Caroline Bergvall and Chaucer

I am intending, for a chapter entitled ‘Translation as Transformation’, to write about Caroline Bergvall’s uses of Chaucer. (‘The Petrarch Boys’ is prefatory thinking for that piece too.) The first time I encountered these works was at a Bergvall reading, possibly in Southampton, and probably part of a conference. It was a hilarious reading, pastiche rubbing shoulders with satire. My next encounter was when I reviewed Meddle English for Poetry Wales. I felt it necessary to contextualise ‘performance writing’ for the readership: ‘Caroline Bergvall,’ I wrote, ‘is a major practitioner (and theorist) of a mode of artistic production somewhat inaccurately called “performance writing”. Yes, performance, indeed collaboration with musicians and sound artists, is important to her, but so is operating in space, with installations and environments, peopled or not. (See her website This work, with its roots in language, is sometimes called “off the page” writing but this implies that printed text is merely a “score”.’ But I added: ‘There is a lot of poker-faced commentary on Bergvall’s work that uses art-speak, much as I have above. This is unavoidable if the sheer newness of the work is to be explained, but it often misses, beyond the theoretics of language(s) – she speaks between three languages – how funny she can be.’ And of course, in my academic book I will have to do something similar. Like this I guess: ‘Caroline Bergvall is a trilingual writer based in Great Britain, known for both working across languages and across disciplines as her exquisite website ( illustrates well. Work, or versions of works, can exist equally as text, audio, film, video, and visually-minimal, linguistically-maximal, installation work. Literal aspects of translation enter her work in a piece such as ‘Crop’ which moves (as though by interlinear gloss) between English, Norwegian and French (Bergvall’s languages) and deals with the passage of the body through those languages. (Bergvall 2011: 147-51) One of her best known texts, which fits neatly into the appropriative poetics of conceptual writing, though it is hardly her most complex, is ‘Via’ which gathers (on the page, but also for inscription upon walls in various gallery spaces) 47 published translations (into English) of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno. (Bergvall 2005: 63-71) Both pieces play upon the vertiginous nature of trans-linguistic possibility (including the accidents of coincidence, whether between languages or between different translations).’

In both introductions I defer to the website which is, I think, the best introduction to her work, however much ‘the book may be one of the sites of linguistic performance’.

Although I review some of the earlier texts in the volume I am chiefly interested in its use of Chaucer now. I wrote:

The prose essay ‘Middling English’ offers the poetics of Bergvall’s work as a Steinian iterative exploration of four related near-homonyms: the sinking ‘midden’ of sedimented language, compost for the return of the repressed; the ‘middling’ blanket of standard language use; the ‘middle’ of linguistic flux and unorthodox exchange; and the ‘meddle’ of interference and transformation. … The fluxing ‘middle’ also hints at ‘Middle English’, the melting pot mash-up that became Modern English and in ‘Shorter Chaucer Tales’, Bergvall exploits its ‘networks and distributive modes of knowledge’. They range from the simple ‘Host Tale’, which collages every food and drink reference in Chaucer’s Tales, and which leaves the reader feeling hilariously crapulent, through to a satire on the Pope’s visit to Poland, where the language runs riot: there’s ‘a ban on all licour sales while the Papa is in toun:/For goddess love, drynk moore attemprely!’ There will be no adverts ‘for contraceptives, lingerie and tampons./Chaast was man in paradys, certeyn,’ and we have the word of ‘the heed of advertising for Telewizja Polska’ that ‘The body is so redy and penyble’ in the face of ‘frivolous ads’. The heteroglossic clash of languages and registers makes this funny, but think of Chaucer’s shady Pardoner and it suddenly seems appropriate rather than simply appropriated.

And think of Chaucer’s shady Pardoner I did. Over Christmas I sink into some long work to read (the year before last it was The Iliad and The Odyssey) and last year (i.e. 2013), I decided to read The Canterbury Tales and did (with the exception of the ones in prose, which I felt, even through their own ‘poker-faced commentary’, the editors of the Oxford volume were telling me not to bother with!). It was partly research for the Bergvall but it was mostly for its own sake. I experienced the pleasures one usually associates with the work: the variety of character and tale, the vibrancy of the language, etc… I experienced the pleasure of re-encountering works I read at school (‘The Franklin’s Tale’ and ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ which I had on vinyl and dug out for its occasion), texts which linked up with the Bergvall project; and others I’d not read before (and now shamefully, a month later, I’ve completely forgotten). I marvelled at the ‘unfinished’ nature of the project – ‘unfinish’ being an obsession of my poetics – and I enjoyed Chaucer’s self parody as a hopeless (and overweight) poetaster. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale’, where the Canon and Yeoman appear out of nowhere like The Lone Ranger and Tonto to the pilgrimage, and the Yeoman manages to escape the thrall of the Canon (who speeds off) to tell a wonderful tale about fraudulent alchemy (I take it that Chaucer would have believed in real alchemy). As you can see, I enjoyed it and it was partly to escape my Canon-like responsibilities as poet-critic and pedagogue that I undertook this reading.

But now I’m the other side of it and need to knuckle down to Bergvall’s Chaucer Tales. I want to write about them as modes of translation, given that my notion of translation is broadened (partly through the study of Hughes’ and Atkins’ Petrarch and through the Semantic Poetry Translations of Stefan Themerson, an important missing link for me in the history of formally innovative poetry) so that it includes all kinds of social and cultural trans-form-ation.

‘Middling English’ I described in my review with a summarising force which quite impresses me, on reflection. I noted, in its first part, ‘the sinking ‘midden’ of sedimented language, compost for the return of the repressed’: or the transformative ‘tracing up of re-emergents’ as Bergvall puts it. (9). ‘The ‘middling’ blanket of standard language use’ is considered. Chaucer’s English privileged a Southern dialect (I think some roguish clerks are given Northern dialect on one of the Tales) but ‘everything about Middle English was a mashup on the rise’ (13) in Bergvall’s words. ‘Mashup’ is a nice contemporary term for the changing nature of the language Chaucer inherited and modified, its ‘influences and confluences’. (13). It led, of course, ‘on the rise’, to Modern English which is – in an un-nice contemporary term which Bergvall quotes - ‘the language of interoperablity’ of international affairs and trade: World English. (12) But Bergvall wonders: ‘The point is less whether it is a world language than the kind of world it perpetuates.’ (12). In terms of Chaucer’s English, the point of Bergvall’s experiments are less to do with whether Chaucer’s English is the beginning of that World language than the kind of world it prefigured, how it prefigured it, and how it may be made to operate as critique of that world now (as archaic residue, ‘re-emergent’ through her formal practice). From Southwark Out, as it were. ‘The “middle” of linguistic flux and unorthodox exchange’ as I called it in the review includes that mashup but also ‘writing in culture’ more generally. (16)

Since my themes are form in the book generally and transformation more specifically in this chapter-in-progress, Bergvall’s contention about transposable media and mediation is important because it is cast in formalist terms: ‘A text takes on forms that extend language into electronics, data systems, aural proximities, means of generation and dissemination that affect the material and temporal traffic of a nodal series of “pages”’. (15) Aesthetic versions of these transpositions are, of course, the formal hallmark of Bergvall’s work (again, the shorthand move is to say: have a look at the website). New media ‘signal that the forms of exchange and learning most widely sought today place transformative and connective value on locationality, transport and audio-visuality.’ (15) Her own work demonstrates how this happens in site-specific installations with sound (language and/or music). ‘Poetic art,’ Bergvall says (she shies away from the word ‘poem’ repeatedly, probably a mistake, since I think we should transform the nature of the ‘poem’, not leave it behind) ‘becomes an occupancy of language made manifest through various platforms, a range of instrumental tools and skills/ and relativized forms of inscription’. (15-16). Her recourse to Chaucer seems all the odder in this literate literary cultural futurism, her return to the last manuscript culture before printing.  

‘The “meddle” of interference and transformation’ of Bergvall’s fourth section is addressed quite directly: ‘My personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one.’ (18) Even more appropriate to the grain of the Chaucer pieces, she announces her aim as ‘To make and irritate English at its epiderm, and at my own.’ (18) Her final triumphant ‘New apprenticeship and transformed commitment’, (19) is glossed earlier: ‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’. (19) Although this is cast in the speculative mode of poetics (with a hint of manifestic programme driving it beyond that), the dialogue of Chaucer with contemporary realities is one of those encounters that meddles (with) the boundaries of articulation. ‘To meddle with English is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity.’ (18) The cloud is one of unknowing, of course, but meddle these texts do, ‘oiling creativity and artistry with critical spirit’ (18) as she puts it, those ‘heightened points’ she refers to above.

Poetics as a speculative writerly discourse is another of my obsessions and I have written about it a lot (in The Necessity of Poetics particularly; one (early) version here) but have never quite got round to publishing a whole book on it. There are scattered essays (including my inaugural lecture of 2007, which I ought to distribute beyond its academic journal publication in New Writing) and quite a few of the chapters of When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry are specifically about poetics documents, as have been my recent posts on Geraldine Monk. An exhaustive catalogue of poetics documents was also posted on this blog a few years ago, a number of posts in fact, when I thought that another outtake of a book would be useful for readers. Best to click onto 2009 on the right and find them between June and August. Very few people have followed them up. However, in this encounter with Bergvall’s work her poetics serves to introduce her ‘Shorter Chaucer Tales’ as they do in Meddle English in fact.
‘The Host Tale’ I described in my review (as I’ve shown): it ‘collages every food and drink reference in Chaucer’s Tales, and … leaves the reader feeling hilariously crapulent’. Is that all? Clearly not. I have described the technique (as does Bergvall in her note) and I’ve said a little about its woozy effect. It is quite a feast. The types of food described are immense and accorded some pleasure when I encountered some of these from Bergvall’s piece as I read Chaucer’s originals. Chaucer’s father was a vintner and he was raised in the importers’ area of London, hence the specificity of the listings I suppose (Chaucer was also a customs official). The text’s title ‘The Host Tale’ is not ‘The Host’s Tale’. Chaucer’s host was probably ‘real’: ‘Henry Bailly, the Host, has the same name as Henricus Bailly or Baillif, known to have been an innkeeper in Southwark, and a member of Parliament from that borough’, which was also Chaucer’s dwelling place at one point. (Note to Oxford: 3) The host in the Tales does not deliver a tale (although he would have if Chaucer had even half completed his task). But that is not the title. It’s ‘The Host Tale.’ The tale that hosts these quotations about the goods used by hosts, about hospitality. (I’m thinking about ghosts and hosts and acts of hospitality, about the very late and Levinasian thought of Derrida which I might check out here.) Playing host in this way differentiates it from the appropriative gestures of conceptual writing (or at least its theories), which allow little room for hospitality: theft is the usual metaphor, the specific practice of plagiarism. Exchange, learning and dialogue seem more prevalent in the quotations from Bergvall’s poetics, and make of her work a more generous encounter with its materials.

‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’ both emphasises this ‘hosting’, but it also acknowledges what is going on in a text such as ‘The Summer Tale’. (19) Obviously this alludes to ‘The Summoner’s Tale,’ which is in turn alluded to in the text, but its subtitle (‘Deus Hic 1’), is another quote from Chaucer (‘God is here’). It is actually the Pope who is ‘here’, i.e. in the site of the poem: my review calls it ‘a satire on the Pope’s visit to Poland, where the language runs riot: there’s ‘a ban on all licour sales while the Papa is in toun:/For goddess love, drynk moore attemprely!’ There will be no adverts ‘for contraceptives, lingerie and tampons./Chaast was man in paradys, certeyn,’. That seems to be a true enough account, and one can see that the use of the Pardoner’s and Summoner’s Tales (they are both suspect ‘occupations’ towards the bottom end of the church hierarchy, of which the Pope is the top (and was in Chaucer’s day, despite controversies)). ‘The Franker Tale (Deus Hic 2)’ is even more outspoken as its title suggests, and anti-clerical (as is Chaucer’s work in some ways, with these theological parasites treated toughly in ‘The Friar’s Tale’, for example). A feminist rebuttal of Pope John Paul II’s ‘Letter to Women’, it collages phrases from the letter with a number of sources, including ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, particularly excerpts from the much longer list of atrocities that have been inflicted upon women. Dorigen at this point in the Tale feels she is obliged to surrender her body as she promised to a lusty Clerk who she thought would not manage to move the black rocks of the Brittany coast as she requested, half jesting. But by necromancy and magic he does and demands her body. She relates this catalogue of rapes and slaughters to herself and concludes: ‘Thus pleyned Dorigen a day or tweye,/ Purposynge evere that she wolde deyee’. (142) Luckily the Clerk has some sense of decency and, much moved by her love for her husband and her fatal sense of loss, releases her from her obligation; after all, this tale is a romance and its generic expectations are stronger than any plot device of necromancy! But that doesn’t relieve her examples of their horror, here reformed into Bergvall’s text with other materials:

Women of Bosnia! Women of Rwanda! Women of Afghanistan!  
            Women of Bengal! Kurdish women! Women of Chetnya!
            Whan thirty tyrants, ful of cursednesse,
            Hadd slayn Phidoun in Atthenes, at feeste,
            They commanded his daughters for tareste,
            And bryngen hem biforn hem in despit,
            Al naked, to fulfille hir foule delit, their foul delight
            And in hir fadres blood their father’s blood they made them dance/
            Upon the pavement, God yeve hem meschaunce!
            Kashmiri women! Punjabi women! Women of France!
            Women of Britain! Women of Finland! Women of America!
            They of Mecene leete enquire and seke
            Of Lacedomye fifty maidens eke,
            On whiche they wolden doon hir lecherye;
            And foul delight.
            Susters and nieces! Mothers aunts and doghters!
            Deus Hic! God is drunk! (33-4; Chaucer quotations at 142: Oxford)

‘My personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one,’ wrote Bergvall and this might be an example of what she means. (18) It is also ‘meddling’ – a metaphor for formal innovation – with ‘English’, which (again in Bergvall’s poetics ) ‘is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity.’ (18) And clearly Latin is read in a kind of pigeon schoolgirl Latin joke at the end. The ‘Women of Afghanistan!’ (and others listed) contrast with the equally papally-hailed ‘Women of Britain’, but the Franklin’s minatory account of ‘foul delight’, mass rape amid martial atrocity, is accounted for in this ‘clouded contemporaneity’, one that is not just clouded but whose supposed supreme being is completely pissed! This passage typifies the inter-lingual play (and the interlineal glosses) and equates ancient rapes with contemporary oppression, quite obviously, but no less powerfully for that. It surpasses the satire of the Pope’s dry visit to Poland with its seriousness but the tone remains the same. Something makes me slightly uneasy about this comic frame (and I am leaving out the presence of Francis Bacon the painter in this text). The final linguistically doubled ‘farting/ in the hoote hot somer summer heat heete’ may be ‘the old Papa’s/ body finally flying free/ quit of his distasteful containee’ doesn’t quite do it for me, although it clearly foregrounds the distrust of the bodily in Catholic thinking, one of the supposed delights of Chaucer’s writing, even allowing (or ignoring) his supposed deathbed recanting of his baser tales. (34-35) (Despite knowing it was there, I found a surprising amount of farting and fucking in Chaucer’s Tales.)  Though re-reading the quoted passage out loud (quite a pleasure with both Bergvall’s and Chaucer’s texts I have found) the ‘God is drunk!’ feels quite sardonic and dark, so maybe I need to re-examine it. (These postings are deliberately not trying to arrive at ‘final’ readings, though I know that a certain finish must be reached in polished literary criticism, though even there isn’t the discourse saying, in effect, ‘This is so, is it not?’ where there must be enough unfinish for a response other than the absolutely affirmative? Otherwise, why read literary criticism?)
The longest ‘shorter tale’, ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’ is in four parts and a range of new materials are introduced. The text, block-like on the page, is in some ways the most malleable, formally speaking, because parts one and four provide the texts for a number of broadsides that can be read separately or were displayed as part of the ‘Middling English’ installation at the John Hansard Gallery. The broadsides may be seen here. The installation may be glimpsed here. Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker (a post-apocalyptic novel narrated in post-nuclear holocaust patois) joins Chaucer as a ‘flexible’ linguistic device, as does the dystopian language devised by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange. Just as prominent is text-speak. They truly ‘irritate’ English, though Chaucer is low in the mix. The first part is a dialogue between investors (or they could be criminals; or both: ‘By St Madoff!’ one of them ‘trupts’, perhaps giving his game away (40)), speaking a strange intimate argot which only they possess.

Im keeping it Im keeping it all! screachit Sir Smith,
1 publikly onurd feend of skotisk stox.
By the spans ov green expans, wot brilyant lyfe.
All larf n dig deepa in2 the public kofins. (40)

Part two stays with the economic theme (‘phynance’), being a very funny cut-up and re-casting of JK Galbraith’s Short History of Financial Euphoria with other materials; ‘The circumstances that induce the recurrent lapses into financial dementia have not changed in any truly operative fashion since the Tulipomania of 1636’ is as funny as it’s unfortunately true. No Chaucer. Formally the interest of the work lies in the transformation of materials and the juxtaposition of the fragments, classic montage. If Rancière cries out as he does (somewhere) for disorder to be put back into montage, then he could do no better than to start here. Part 3 does contain some Chaucer (remember, that’s my focus), though part four doesn’t. Part three is short and un-sweet: ‘suk the air out of this terrifying hellhole with merciful subtronic nasty freqs liberation trail-outs’. (48) Part 4 is a bit of a surprise tonally, since much of it consists of a scientific debate about the head on beer. We are clearly back in ‘the Tabard’. (49) Against the jocularity of the beer-science the figure of Dame Justice appears. Whereas financial institutions had been satirised in earlier sections, their legal underpinnings are exposed here. ‘Dame Justice … no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth…’ Or, or, or. Here follows a long list (‘she can be pretty longwinded’) culminating in ‘so-called transnational trafficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperfunded plunderprize’. (50) Even a few borrowed motifs from Derek Jarman’s The Last of England can’t hold out against that: ‘Dame Justice. Who will die again be slain again. Nobody listening nobody listening.’ (51) This is the bleakest of the Tales, no doubt, and the one with least connection to Chaucer. (Is there a connection between those two facts?) It might find itself not appearing in my final account, therefore, but it’s good to account for it here, however inadequately.

There is one other text, the shortest, ‘The Not Tale (Funeral)’. It’s not a tale because it ironically eschews narrative while becoming a narration of negatives: ‘nor how/ nor how’. (37) It is ‘Funeral’ because it is entirely – Bergvall’s note – ‘a translation of a cross-section of Arcite’s extravagant and moving funeral in “The Knight’s Tale”.’ (161) It is interesting to see Bergvall using the word translation to describe her processes. Arcite’s funeral is indeed as Bergvall describes it, a funeral of honour for a knight who has died for love, in Chaucer’s highest romance. What Bergvall has noted is the curious presence of negatives (the presence of absence, if you will) in the account of the funeral, more specifically the building, lighting and burning of Arcite’s pyre, the narrator rhetorically listing what he cannot describe:

Ne how that lad was homeward Emelye;
Ne how Arcite is brent to asshen colde;
Ne how that lyche-wake was yholde
al thilke nyght; ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I nat to seye. (46)

There must be a name for this in Greek rhetoric (they are Greeks after all!), but the point here is that Bergvall spots the opportunity to strip out the detail and leave the essential device, the spine of mourning as it were. Out of supposed narrational ineptitude comes a string of denials of expressive acuity, which then again are whittled down to this strand of hypnotic (and still funereal) detail. 
Nor what
nor how
nor how
nor what she spak, nor what was her desire
Nor what jewels
when the fire
Nor how some threw their
and some their
and their
and cups full of wine and milk
and blood
into the fyr
into the fire (37)

Notice how Bergvall picks out the detail of Emelye’s (female) speechlessness from Chaucer’s rolling waves of denied detail:

Ne how she swowned whan men made the fyr,
Ne what she spak, ne what was hir desir;
Ne what jewels men in the fyrr caste. (45)

‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’ (19) Bergvall writes, and this seems to be a fine summary of the poetics of these pieces (and I’ve quoted it twice already). The ‘meddling’ is the formal principle of these pieces, the interruption and interference, the intervention and the intermediatization of the results. Exchange and dialogue, in terms of formal appropriation, assimilation and transformation of a range of materials (including Chaucer’s Tales!), are ultimately acts of translation. If Derek Attridge says of more conventional translations, ‘The singular work is … not merely available for translation but is constituted in what may be thought of as an unending set of translations – for each new context in which it appears produces further transformation,’ then transformation as a process may be read backward onto translation, particularly where the language engaged with is the crucially important proto-hegemonic dialect Chaucer used: a world language in waiting, waiting ultimately for the sinister ‘transnational trafficking’ of our contemporary ‘Justice’. (Attridge 2004: 73)

(See also all the links to realted excerpts and dry-runs from and for The Meaning of Form here)  

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Robert Sheppard and Thomas Ingmire: Afghanistan

I have been working with an American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire (who has cheifly worked with David Annwn, who kindly suggested me). Below is a calligraphic/visual re-presensation/interpretation of my poem 'Afgahnistan' (from Warrant Error). I thought I'd share it. I have an original in my office.


Like a figure in a dream of perfect falling
Like something from somewhere like hell

You were the dark-eyed girl who crept out
Before the pink meat dawn to spy
The growling machines while the whole town
Still dreamt of exactly what she saw

 Night vision green flecked with sparks
And clouds of vectoral vapour pouring across
Sun-baked gravel where a human head severe
And severed scarved in crackling plastic
Resurrected. She dived through coils of barbed wire

She ran her oily fingers along the sealed walls
Of the outsiders as though reading their secret script
Or leaving her own