The Poetic Research Bureau, a California-based publishing collective, hosts one of the longest active reading series in Los Angeles, based in Chinatown’s Arts District. Its publishing emphasis is on ephemeral and short-run books and folios, and its directors seek to cultivate composition, publication and distribution strategies that enlarge the public domain. The Conversant has invited the Bureau’s co-directors Joseph Mosconi, Andrew Maxwell and Ara Shirinyan to engage in an ongoing discussion concerning the Bureau’s various activities.
Joseph Mosconi: People may know the Poetic Research Bureau as a reading series in Los Angeles. But we are also a fledgling publishing collective and have tried to forge an identity through various essays and shared statements. So I’d like to start off by addressing the tangled topic of our poetics, shared and unshared, the different assumptions each of us hold about poetry and aesthetic practice and perhaps loop back to how coterie may or may not play a part in this.
Ara, you identify strongly as a conceptual writer. Your imprint Make Now Press has published what many consider to be landmark books in conceptual poetry by Kenneth Goldsmith, Yedda Morrison, Rob Fitterman and others. You were even included in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing.
Andrew, in your poem “The Conceptual Poet and the Hiring Committee,” you seem to criticize the figure of the conceptual poet as a careerist “open to traveling for panel appearances” and “envious of painting’s egress.” Elsewhere you write: “Against Expression. Really?” and describe it as “A hold-back project, as nostalgic as self-loathing, even where the self is accidentally yours.” And yet you are no enemy of proceduralism and “historical thefts and pastiche.”
Andrew Maxwell: I think much of what we talk about when we discuss poetry is overcapitalized academic kitsch, and I probably mean that in a slightly different way than Daniel Tiffany has been working the term, though I’m sure Daniel and I would have an interesting discussion about it. There are still so many enamored of making a mark on, or in, Literature. Or Literature that reduces to overcapitalized academic kitsch. So many novelties play for attention in the hope of becoming memetic, valuable and mass-produced—while taking on the aura of a singular genius. Because poets are often starving, or nearly so, there’s this necessity of making a business of it, and a personal business of it. It’s heartbreaking.
This business of Literature makes a lot of stuff, and I do get really impatient with stuff where it stands in the way of knowing things. It’s true that I read widely in difficult, or problematic, literature—but largely because I thrill in understanding things, in coming to know them. I think much of what Ara loves in poetic literature could be considered “difficult,” so we mutually pay attention to these things, and we have mutual love of freethinking and coming to know the secular, apart from all the marketing tropes and literary inventions.
What interests me in poetry is when it allows for open-minded adventure, when it creates a free field of argument that is unbounded and undisciplined. What I often stand against is when poetry reduces to a program (and I don’t mean simply algorithmic literature, though there’s a lot of that now, and it’s often in service to a larger program—but when it becomes anthemic, or tokenized, and exchanged with knowing looks, like low-rent dianetics). And that’s what the program of “Conceptual Literature” feels like to me: low-rent dianetics. The most muddled avant-garde ever and hungry for any number of business dinners and relations. But that’s not to say that its practitioners are not my fellow travelers, or that we don’t admire similar things or that I don’t get their hunger.
I may not know what “proceduralism” means in your context, but I’m fine with disruptive procedures that alienate one from Literature, or self-hypnosis or produce a turn of phrase that makes a new thought possible. I like what Roussel did, not because it was a trick, like an Eddie Van Halen solo, but because he believed there was a star on his brow, and that star was leading him forward. I’m amazed by that star, and that’s what I look for in coming to the poetry community. The poetry community: all these heartbroken researchers with stars on their brows.
It just bums me out when they obsess over analgesic literature and are certain that when Joe White erases all the verbs from the Bible something critical has been invented. I dislike invention. We’re a hurt people, and it rarely helps.
Ara Shirinyan: My aim is to publish books that are necessary though often avoided by other publishers. I was always drawn to difficult literature: Burroughs, Gysin, Stein, Jarry, Roussel. I was interested in the spirit of their gestures. Literature as the zone or site of rupture, the stuff happening now, linked to history. In my early twenties I was obsessed by the histories and catalogs of great presses: Atlas, Something Else Press, Sun & Moon, Exact Change. These presses pulled me in.
Later I discovered Language poetry, the Objectivists (Zukofsky and Reznikoff in particular). I wanted to emulate. I wanted to contribute something to my loves.
A work that captured, valued and explained all of these modernisms was Charles Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption. Charles linked the energy of the moderns to a form of writing that was virtually unknown to the professors at my university. My eyes were blown wide open, and I immersed myself in understanding this new conversation. My publishing practice is to publish books in the tradition of unrelenting modernism. Not the historical period, but the spirit to undo, dig, reconnect and rebuild.
It’s with some of that in mind that I felt Kenneth Goldsmith’s work was very important. I loved No. 18.104.22.168-10.20.96, was baffled by it really, but I stuck with it and let it make sense to me. I wrote Ubuweb an email. Its spam bot checked me. Kenny wrote back. I love the Internet for that.
I also contacted the French-language Oulipo website and asked for Ian Monk. I was interested in the work of one of the few English-writing members of the Oulipo. I was shocked no one had published him. Ian wrote me back, and we started collaborating.
Do conceptual works take adventure seriously, and do they contribute anything interesting to the debate? Of course they do. Are these contributions fleeting? For sure. And the debate itself, this pro-con con-con, is mostly sad. Trite PDFs on one side, sad research on the other. But there are also gems. Very important thinking is going on in the conceptual poetry community and much of it is often glossed over or caricatured, or devolves into ad-hominem. Very lumpy soft thoughts emerging partly from resentment. Haters hating.
I partly want to stay out of the conceptual poetry debate, because I am not Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place, and most of the criticism is against those two, and I mostly disagree with the conflation of conceptual poetry with them. I don’t agree with everything Kenny says or writes, but it leads me to refine my own practice. I resent any attacks on conceptual practice on the basis that it is right-wing or pro-capitalist. I find these attacks to be baseless, vulgar and repressive.
There should be no question that conceptual practice is the foremost modernism in poetry at the moment. Listen, I hate shtick in some of these sectors as much as anyone else. I concede that the majority of conceptual output is uninteresting, and not even in a good way. But it does not mean that the ideas behind the practices are bunk. Who cares if they are not original? I mean, oddly, that is one of the criticisms. Yes, some conceptual gestures are old hat, ’60s, but what language system isn’t?
And heartache. I have so much of that in my life. And there’s so much of that in the world. I work every day on creating writing that writes the great messes small—to take from Oppen’s description of Rez. But I value aesthetics most. My aesthetic takes heartache over shtick any day.
I link conceptualism not to what the Internet can do, but to what Rez has done and what Jarry meant when he referred to a bird as “handwriting colored.”
JM: Ara, it surprises me that you link conceptual poetry to modernism, even if you refer not to the historical period but to some inchoate spirit of the thing. Certain conceptual poets do reduce poetry to a set of formal concerns, complete with manifestos and territorial claims, which play out as a sock-puppet version of modernism, with one hand shoved in Duchamp’s cold bod (though there’s a certain macabre ecstasy in that), and this might be what Andrew objects to when he speaks of programs, the aura of genius and knowing looks. While such work does not always make it new, as you concede, I have trouble seeing the broader connection to the modernist impulse, even if the only other option is to make it now. And undoing, digging, reconnecting, rebuilding? This does sound like the historical avant-garde—but at this point it also sounds like the mandate of Silicon Valley.
And what is more contemporary than the meme? You make a disparaging comment about PDFs, but isn’t the PDF the perfect vehicle for this type of memetic poetry? Instant distribution. Maximum readership. Is it novelty? Not necessarily. One of the peculiarities of the PDFs published by Troll Thread and Gauss PDF is the wholesale removal of authorial agonism and surface difficulty, in favor of hyperproduction and immediate reaction. The difficulty arises not in the text itself but in the text’s effects on its readers as the text is shared, liked, downloaded, copied, dismissed, parodied, remixed and finally canonized or forgotten. It’s the kind of production where you keep publishing and publishing and eventually something brilliant will be bashed out. Most of these writers have thought very carefully about this and decided very deliberately that the PDF is the best format for their work. The PDFs are as carefully designed, even in their shoddiness, as any artist book you’d find in the stacks at Printed Matter or Ooga Booga. Brian Reed even argues that this intentionally impoverished look is “a political tool, a way of critiquing or resisting pressures to create appealing commodities that will circulate frictionlessly in a market economy”—though I find this hard to reconcile with the fact that PDFs are one of the most frictionless and easily circulatable commodities available. And make no mistake, they are commodities. As memes they seem at once valuable and disposable. I’m almost tempted to read PDF publishers as upstart accelerationists, exacerbating the contradictions of production in order to hasten its destruction. What seems haphazard, shtick or kitsch is, as the engineering department says, a feature not a bug. This seems like an obvious, maybe even necessary gesture. Even the Poetic Research Bureau’s own website claims that our publication emphasis is on ephemeral works, short-run magazines and folios, short-lived reprints and excerpts in print-on-demand formats (and the occasional literary fetish object of stupidly incomparable price and value). The PDF strategy doesn’t always work, but when it does you’re rewarded with something astonishing in its simplicity, like Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Lazarus Project or Holly Melgard’s Poems for Baby Trilogy.
AS: I guess what I mean by the modernist impulse is deeply personal and rests on my own readings into modernism and the impetus there. In fact, most of my thinking and approach to conceptual practice is personal: I hermit, I reject, I digress, I manifesto. But in the end, these moves are all in an effort to fine-tune my own aesthetic.
Conceptual practice as I see it owes less to Duchamp than it does to the Objectivists and Benjamin, Borges, Bakhtin (too many BBBros). Plus, there are so many (I mean, so many) different kinds of practicing conceptualists that the term itself is problematic. I am so busy with work and being a father, and all that affect, that I often find myself perplexed at having to sift through new work produced by conceptualists. I am constantly catching up. Not everything excites. I am fine with that, though, because there is so much that does. I don’t want to overplay the importance of these works. I can’t predict the future. For the time being, I am completely down with conceptual practice, though I rarely find myself in agreement with the statements produced by its spokespeeps.
JM: Andrew, when you refer to Literature as “overcapitalized academic kitsch,” do you mean literature qua Literature? Or simply writing that seems overly literary (i.e., familiar as Literature)? One of the main techniques of conceptual poetry has been to reframe non-literary texts (weather reports, baseball broadcasts, legal documents) as poems, which are then reified as Literature. My problem with this type of pure, Duchampian conceptualism is that it is idealistically reductionist. I’m interested in more than just ideas and effects; I prefer something messier, less certain in its worth, expansive and rough but not monumental, vulgar or cheap even—and, sure, undisciplined.
AM: OK, let me be specific. I mean Literature as a unitary corpus of texts that have: one, professional value; two, nodal authorial identities that are attached; and three, a subscription relationship between the text and its producer. Works that are attributed to authors, including those that play at not being authors—though what’s most interesting to me is the act of subscription and the professional value that accrues from it. This can be a pure market phenomenon, but as poetry and difficult literatures have vanishingly small markets, the value is chiefly professional, among loose groupings of academics, artists and media workers (the demonstration of certain thematic unities that will “mark” the corpus, and ultimately reduce to a name, something that undersigns and assigns value, a pure play between signature and signatory).
Unavoidably, we get caught up here in another discussion of “conceptual” practice—but I have very little use for movement literatures. They rarely help me think. Every “author” is an atomic movement to a degree, so it’s absurd to see another cohort rehearsing the “death of the author” premise while fully embracing a big banner literary movement, one which functionally serves the same purpose as the unitary author does: it establishes names and circulates them, cultivates collective identity that can be adjudicated, and produces a framework for valuation. If this weren’t true, the boys who assembled Against Expression could not have fenced out Hannah Weiner for being, what was it, mentally ill (or have offered some other carefully argued reason for suggesting that the relationship of text producer to production did not fit the scope of this pure movement). And Vanessa wouldn’t repeat the gestures of Billy Apple and Christo in self-incorporating, though firmly within the generic realm of Poetry, undersigned: VP.
Meanwhile, I describe my attitude toward Literature in Peeping Mot, with Suspended Judgment #17: That poetry is forensics, and the field under its scrutiny not Literature, but “the literature.” This endorses an aspirational mode for poetry, of course, as the least bounded and disciplinary form of forensic examination and value arbitration that we have. It also points at this peculiarly useful idea we have of “the literature,” something often referenced but little talked-about (as in: “It cannot be found in the literature” or “the literature is inconsistent on this matter”). We can refer to this idea of “the literature,” generally with phrases like “the achievement of the commons,”or as in the past, “received” or “revealed” “knowledge.” And more recently, somewhat stiffly as “commons-based peer production.”
These aren’t new ideas (happily), just kinds of constructivism. This sense of the literature—tied not to authorial value but to use-value and discovery—is typically spoken of in scientific and legal contexts (perhaps the only critical difference being that science is uncomfortable with error, and the law is indifferent to it). Poetry is less domain-and application-specific and often dismisses error as a false problem, which is generative. If you can be comfortable with a notion of poetry as forensics, of poetic evidence and poetic knowledge, then what matters most is the creation of fora where this strange evidence can be produced and witnessed. The project is communitarian and non-hierarchical, with the production of coterie and audience being crucial. Even a reading and performance series with a black-box space is sufficient structure, if the coterie is motivated and the work serious in intent (and I don’t mean unfunny or without improvisation).
This is all a long and very dry way of describing how soi-disant conceptualists and poetic researchers can coexist productively, even as there is frequent confusion, no less at the personal level.
Do we want to talk about modernisms? I don’t think Ara is wrong—I’m quite sure conceptualists are invested in narrative progress, much as they are invested in genres and disciplines. They’ve said it’s time to “catch up” with the visual arts. They’ve embraced the totalizing and anti-humanist tendencies in high modernism, including the tendency that seeks to absorb and claim other modernisms, and assert recursive equivalencies: conceptualism-as-allegory, conceptualism-as-algorithm, etc. This embrace of the memetic as a sort of post-October synthesis of avant-garde and kitsch is just an obvious example. The vocabulary is recycled and a bit limited. Unsurprisingly, the fora for these expressions are typically limited to the art museum and the academy, which again, recursively, is where many of the signature practitioners are seeking employment. It makes sense that these institutions would gladly receive and domesticate them. To import another aphorism here, “The total poetry is inevitably disciplinary.” But it’s a bit of a dead end for other late moderns, like myself, who are hung up on gnosis.
That said, the PRB has just published an essay by Brian Kim Stefans on “conceptual writing” in Los Angeles (under the Area Sneaks imprint), reinforcing the impression somewhat that the PRB is one of the tentpoles of the movement. But interestingly, early comments from many of those mentioned in Brian’s essay—Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener, for instance—have expressed some discomfort or reluctance to carry the banner of the “LA Brand.” That includes you, Joe, and you commissioned the essay. Where do see your recent work fitting into this conversation?
JM: That the Poetic Research Bureau is loosely associated with conceptualism is not surprising and may be inescapable when we include Make Now Press under its umbrella, which published Kenneth Goldsmith’s trilogy The Weather, Traffic and Sports. Though I like to think we are more inclusive than that, and certainly this plays out in the programming we do for our reading series, which is aggressively non-aligned.
If we value “poetic research” or gnosis as you say, I should hope we do our best to avoid any type of observer-expectancy effect. I prefer to couch our use of these scientific, or pseudo-scientific terms (“research,” “forensics,” “evidence”) with a healthy dose of satire, as there’s a strain of positivism in these metaphors that, as seductive and generative as it is, unnerves me a bit. When it comes down to it, I love lyric poetry and sketch comedy and the contemporary revisions of New Narrative as much as conceptual writing. And sometimes I just want to fuck shit up.
I share your distrust of movement literatures, even while I take a great interest in the polemical fireworks they engender. Of course I love a good argument. I published that essay by Brian Kim Stefans not because I agreed with all of his propositions, but because I thought he had some interesting things to say about Los Angeles and the ragged circle of writers at work here, which wasn’t so clearly articulated anywhere else. I’m ambivalent about labels and have no interest in personally advocating for programs, but I always find it interesting to see disambiguation emerge in the taxonomies of literary critics. My own work has been read (when it is read at all) as literary gimmick, conceptual writing and even post-conceptual writing (the latter designation quickly historicizing a tendency only a few seconds old). I only really started writing and publishing under the sign of poetry about seven years ago, and while I was aware of Flarf and other contemporary trends, I always preferred to look at what my peers in the visual arts or design were doing—why not try similar strategies in poetry? Conceptualism has been so thoroughly absorbed into the practice of art that it’s not really an issue. It’s become a sort of international style, the conceptual move a tool like any other, simply part of the shared language. I think we’re beginning to see this absorption in poetry, too.
My books Fright Catalog and Demon Miso/Fashion In Child deliberately invoke the legacy of minimalist poetry and text-based visual art of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Heavy-metal subcultures and international food courts are also abused. But I don’t think of these books as strictly conceptual. Although much of the language is appropriated, the books also contain language I simply made up myself, and the method of composition is rather conventional collage. And I designed them to be legible to readers who may not necessarily understand all the art historical and literary citations. Demon Miso can be read and enjoyed by seven-year-olds (and has been, or so I’ve been told). I do think of both projects as book-length poems, and conceived of them as book-objects. That is, Fright Catalog was conceived of as a glossy, full-color supermarket-style magazine and couldn’t have been published any other way (the name Fright Catalog is borrowed from a Halloween costume catalog I get in the mail each October). Design is as important an element in these books as text. Design may even be more important than text. Here I follow McKenzie Wark’s recent comments that design could potentially be a more interesting or fruitful domain than either politics, poetry or art, a domain where “people are not just trying to prototype social relations but also asocial relations.” Poets and artists that make use of the encyclopedia, the taxonomy and the aggregator, which I view partially as tools of design, may actually be revolutionizing daily life in a way that the commune never could.
Joseph Mosconi is a writer, editor, critic, cook, publisher, linguist, gourmand, heavy-drinker, walker, driver, reader and occasional sleeper based in Los Angeles. He co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau and co-edits the art & lit mag Area Sneaks. He is the author of Fright Catalog and Demon Miso/Fashion In Child.
Andrew Maxwell is the author of Peeping Mot and Candor is the Brightest Shield. A founding editor of the journals The Germ and Double Change, he co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles, where he is also a radio DJ, scattered papa and manager of semantic and behavioral modeling initiatives at Google LA.
Ara Shirinyan lives in Glendale, a suburb in Los Angeles County. He was born in the Armenian SSR and moved here with his parents in 1987. Issues of identity, nationalism (imagination) and habitat (reality) cause him much grief. He writes, often appropriates, textures, works in the book form, both material and digital. Since 2003 he has edited and published Make Now Press. He has made or authored several books, including Syria Is In The World, Your Country Is Great, Handsome Fish Offices, Speech Genres and Julia’s Wilderness. He likes starting or instigating gatherings. He has played music (Godzik Pink), co-founded an all-ages venue (The Smell) and co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau.