Collage, Collaboration & Bookish Beasts

SPECIAL TOPICS IN WRITING / ENGL 619:003 & 497:001 / SPRING 2008

//////// Updates \\\\\\\

On this page I will post changes to the schedule, notes on assignments, responses to questions, and other stuff you can't do without. It is your responsibility to check it. Often.

Don't despair! It's almost Spring! Ahead lies less reading and more workshop.

Some of you have asked for more information on Ian Hamilton Finlay and on Little Sparta. Start on my Finlay page for links to official sites, articles, images, and bibliography.

1 March
3 notes & a little discussion

1) I have updated the schedule to show what's planned through March. After that it will be mostly workshop. If you look ahead, you will see that by the day of our first meeting after Spring Break, you will need to have spent some time at the Reserve Desk looking at Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta.

You will also see that the reading of texts made by constrained writing techniques has been moved way forward, to March 27. You may want to work ahead, and start on those readings, particularly since some of them come from books recommended to your attention for the latter part of the semester, when you choose your own reading.

This week we will workshop your visual poems, bearing in mind last week’s reading (bring copies for all)  ...and workshop your visual texts (based on Drucker) bearing in mind not only Drucker but our early readings on the nature of the book as a physical object. Please come prepared with your questions about last week's reading, or ideas that have shaken out in the days since.

2) We will write in class this week--
collaborative chains of mesostics. You will do these in pairs and you and your writing partner will agree on a topic. Please think about two or three subjects you might like to write about. Good  possibilities: something that changes, so it can be endlessly (not repetetively) described (like clouds); some kind of motion (like walking, or going somewhere). The sample chain sent by e-mail is about wuyi, a mountain-grown Chinese tea.

Other mesostics (not linked in a chain) can be seen at
In one of the handouts from last week—on Procedural poems—you’ll find a brief intro to mesostics used very differently, by John Cage, as a method for “writing through” a text—in other words, a way of reading. If you want more, go to the Reserve Desk and read about mesostics in the Oulipo Compendium.

3) We also have some business to take care of. First, we will agree on the parameters for your first portfolio, which is due when we return from Spring Break. And, second, we will talk about your choice of individual books to read and respond to in the second half of the semester. I will ask for your choices just after Spring Break.

4) In class last week, I suggested the binary created by Grimm’s comparison of Greek and Roman models for (from around page 26) could be useful when examining visual poems and texts. It can also be useful to think about what poetic affects are present in the poem at hand, and what affects are missing. (This is the thought that flew out of my head before I could speak it!)

For example, does the poem progress, or is it just there? Does it conceal anything, or is it all there before you? This alone is enough to make some people reject visual texts as unpoetic or unmeaningful. Does the poem invite catharsis of any kind? Often it does not, and this, too, can push the text beyond the realm of poetry for some readers. On the other hand, what ideas are set in motion? What jokes, puns, or allusions are operating? Where do those thoughts lead you? Is that mental motion a motion of reading?

25 Feb

Please send your poem(s) from last week out to everyone by e-mail, if they are send-able.

password for our readings on Electronic Reserve: CREATIVE

I think I said in class that everyone should choose a visual poem from reading at the Reserve Desk. That wasn't quite right. Everyone: please choose a visual poem from somewhere in our reading for this week and come prepared to talk about it. Is it a pattern poem? concrete? typographical? uncategorizably visual? How do you read it? What other visual poems in our reading is it related to? What kinds of conventional poetry (or other discourse or art) is it related to?
(If your choice is not one of those I asked everyone to print and bring to class, you may need to bring copies.)

In addition, we will need two volunteers to prepare some discussion arising from Grimm's survey of the history of visual poetry.  Once you volunteer, I'll e-mail some suggestions.

10 Feb 

Please bring copies of your erasure poem, even if you elect to workshop a collage poem from the previous week.

Here are some notes on Erasure, to get us rolling for this Thursday.  There are two quotes here--from Dan Beachy Quick and from Mark Scroggins; between them you will find two sets of questions to consider. Please come prepared with thoughts on two or three of these questions (and, of course, any questions of your own). I will ask a few people to take the lead in our discussion--watch your Inbox for an invitation.

In his review Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (a recommended reading linked on the schedule for this week) Dan Beachy-Quick writes:

Emerson, in his speech “The American Scholar,” claims that if creative writing exists, then so does creative reading. Johnson’s erasure offers a radical example of Emerson’s point: the work of writing is here an act indecipherable from the act of reading. Later in the speech Emerson unfolds the nature of great oration. One can tell that one is listening to a great orator, Emerson says, when the words spoken come to the hearer as his own. The subtle but shocking paradox of such a moment of listening reveals genius as a different capacity from the one we normally think of—not singular and aloof but communal, an approach to universal insight that awakens in us the particularity of our own minds. Genius is echoic. Genuine eloquence does not convince us of another’s genius so much as it convinces us of our own. “Convinces” may be the wrong word: our attention to another’s genius makes us capable of our own. The humility of listening is matched with the audacity of claiming the work heard. The receptive and the expressive are yoked into a single gesture, in which the words in my ear transubstantiate into the words in my mouth. Or, to push further along the synesthesia Johnson takes as his poetic bedrock, we write with a speaking ear, we hear with a listening mouth. The confusion endemic to poetic endeavor strangely orients us—not by delimiting realms, not by making more distinct what’s mine and what’s not mine, but by refusing such commonsense boundaries. Johnson seems to say of Milton, I will speak with his mouth as before I lived he spoke with mine.

“One could dismiss Radi Os as mere gimmickry. One could read it and say, “But anyone could have done that; I could have done that.” Part of what is so remarkable in Johnson’s project is the empowering sense that any genuine reading of such a work as Paradise Lost accomplishes within each reader a similar work: a reading as individual as the mind that reads. We write our work within it as a single flower sprouts up and blooms within a sheltering bush. The point widens. No poet possesses a language entirely original. To favor the poem that seems to come out of nothing—or out of the chaos-leaved dictionary blown about in the mind—over the poem pulled from another poem, over the poem discovered by shearing away the language from its original syntax, judges the issue falsely. These compositional methods that seem so opposite do not oppose at all. We all speak words already spoken and write words already written. Seldom do we get to see the poem leap up so from its source.” [bold added]

This raises many questions; among them—
  • What are you creating when you create an erasure text? Is it “yours”?
  • What is an “author”?
  • What is a “reader”?
  • What does it mean to be “original”?
  • What becomes of the poet's "voice"?
At a practical level, there are other questions. Consider these in relation to the sample texts I assigned or passed out in class (Johnson, Bervin, Phillips, Holmes, Ruefle, Cobb, Magi, etc.) and in relation to your own erasure texts.
  • Your new text will also have “a reader.” By what visual means can you construct a reading of your text? How fluid do you want the possibilities to be?
  • Will the source text be visible to a reader? How material will its presence be?
  • Or, is the source text so well known that it will be “visible” or present, as Milton’s text is present to Johnson’s, even without material presence?
  • How does your text relate to the original? Is it a lyric inscription within a more all-encompassing work? A satire or refutation? A particular pathway of reading?
  • What does erasure have in common with collage? How does it differ?
  • What is the meaning of a "fragment" in an erasure text?
For a little history of fragments, here is a fragment of Mark Scroggins, chipped from an article on Ian Hamilton Finlay (whose work we will see later in the semester) --

In his Athenaeum Fragments, Schlegel notes, "Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments. Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written" (21). This dictum makes a crucial distinction between the work that time or mischance has made a fragment, and the work composed as fragment. As Davenport puts it in the introduction to his translations from the Greek, "Many of [these] fragments are mere words and phrases, but they were once a poem, and, like broken statuary, are strangely articulate in their ruin" (14); such a fragment, then, is much like the "colossal Wreck" of Shelley's "Ozymandias," the eloquent but fundamentally incomplete remainder of a "shattered" whole. (The implied equation of fragment and ruin is not coincidental here; as Philipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy point out in their study of the Athenaeum group, "The philological fragment, especially in the tradition of Diderot, takes on the value of the ruin" (42).)

Schlegel's own fragments, however, are not the result of time and decay but a purposeful gesture towards a new conception of genre, of the literary itself. Schlegel describes his conception of the literary fragment: "A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine" (45). As Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy comment, "the detachment or isolation of fragmentation is understood to correspond exactly to completion and totality" (43). On the one hand, Romanticism's reading of the historical, preexisting fragment or ruin works forcefully to suggest a lost totality; the fragment gestures back towards Coleridge's "pleasure dome," or Goethe's "Land wo die Zitronen blÜhn." At the same time, however, the Romantic fragment per se -- that is, the work composed as fragment, rather than the abandoned or defaced work -- is intended to be paradoxically both self-contained, autonomous -- and, simultaneously, patently fragmentary. This is again in line with Schlegel, who characterizes Romantic poetry as essentially incomplete: "it should forever be becoming and never be perfected" (32).(3)

[So, what is the meaning of "fragment" in, say, Flarf?]

6 Feb Seems like a month since our first meeting! I'm looking forward to our first real discussion & workshop. Don't forget the new room: Thompson 134. Kiss Laura Scott when you see her.  Below are announcements, corrections, + more readings for those especially interested in collage.


Password for our readings on Electronic Reserve: CREATIVE

March 29 (Sat) is confirmed for a workshop on book arts at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring. Morning or afternoon session will be available.
Cost will be in the range of $25-35.

In class tomorrow, we will follow the plan on the syllabus for discussion of collage, workshop, and "bookshelf" time examining small books. Please be on time. We will try to wind up at least a few minutes early b/c of the Linda Gregerson reading at 7:30 (Grand Tier III, Concert Hall).


I'm not sure what I had in mind when I listed those particular pages in TOOT
for this week--there really isn't much collage, per se, in this book. So don't worry if you are having trouble relating those readings to the others.


Another excerpt from Renée Angle's Salamandra Salamandra has recently appeared in The Diagram 7.6.

If you are interested in Flarf, here are p
Performance videos from the 2006 Flarf Festival, available at . You can watch our own Mel Nichols, as well as "classic" flarf poets K. Silem Mohammad, Drew Gardner, Sharon Mesmer, Michael Magee, & others. These performances are the best way to get the spirit of flarf.

Here are links to some of my collage poems. These three are built on phrases and combine found, pulled, and original text. American Ghazals, Ice or Salt, A Visit to the Underworld Can Permanently Alter Your Perspective on 'Restless Existence',

Dear with Extremes of Thirst and Pain (in Opus 42) is a collaboration with Adrian Lurssen, built with lexicons assembled from designated pages of source texts. All our collaborations are composed under the umbrella of a subject: Africa, and more specifically exile from Africa.  An earlier poem in the series, He Does Not Know He Is a Bird included some arcane rules for pulling words, phrases, and whole sentences from our sources. It appeared in
Fascicle, a journal I hope you will browse and become thoroughly entangled with.

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