derek beaulieu on How to Write

In my last post I shared a video of derek beaulieu reading from his book of conceptual fiction How to Write. Using the power of the interwebs, I was also able to ask beaulieu some questions about his new book…
Helen: You’ve called How to Write a work of conceptual fiction. Why do you think of this book as a book of fiction and not poetry? When it comes to conceptual writing, where do you think the line is between the two forms? Does the line even matter?

derek: I considered How to Write a collection of short fiction because—for the most part—the source texts were fiction. I wanted to know how much I could remove from a piece of “fiction” and have it remain “fiction.” I do try and categorize the book as a collection of prose pieces, suggesting that most of the hallmarks of “fiction” (traditionally) are absent from How to Write, and yet I don’t think its poetry.
I don’t know the blurring of the lines between poetry and prose is an issue unique to conceptual writing, I think its endemic to poetry as a whole. That said, Conceptual Writing as a genre I think is more concerned with issues around ‘writing’ than issues around ‘poetry’. Poetry has little to offer outside of poetry itself, writing—on the other hand—is a much more dynamic space. Poetry tends to know its poetry, while writing doesn’t always know its writing.

Helen: Your piece “I Can See the Whole Room… and There’s Nobody in It!” is a collection of all the text from Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings. In your introduction to the piece here in Montreal, you discussed how the estate of Lichtenstein not only sues people who plunder Lichtenstein’s work, but also those who cite the work Lichtenstein cites, saying that no one would use this work had Lichtenstein not introduced them to it. Like many pieces of conceptual writing, your book subverts stringent copyright laws and intellectual property rights. Why do you think this is important? Should writers hoard their content and guard it jealously, or let others steal from their work? What’s at stake? How does this issue in writing comment on our everyday lived experiences in a culture governed by these laws?

derek: I think that in the age of the internet, copyright laws as they currently exist are becoming increasingly obsolete. In fact, as Kenneth Goldsmith argues, if a text does not exist online, it does not exist at all. Our culture is one of constant appropriation and recontextualization. Writers in ostrich-like ignorance of the potential of sharing—as opposed to hoarding—their texts, are ignoring potentially the most important artistic innovation of the 20th century: collage.

What’s at stake? Nothing but your own obsolescence. If you don’t share you don’t exist.

Helen: When you read from your book you explain the strategy you used to write each piece, and in the last pages of How to Write we find a list briefly explaining how each piece was composed. Do you think the work is more meaningful if the audience is given this way in? Is there anything to gain from withholding your sources or compositional strategy in a text like this? Does letting your audience know where you stole your content contribute to the radical political message of the book? Is your artistic theft more meaningful if people know where you stole your lines? Why list the writing methods at the back of the book, and not at the beginning of each poem?

derek: I think that allowing the audience access to the texts through support material, notes and bibliographical references fosters what Goldsmith again refers to as a “thinkership” instead of a “readership.” Knowing that the entirety of the text in How to Write was stolen undermines the idea of artistic genius, and suggests what Perloff now refers to as “Unoriginal Genius.” I included my sources as a nod to my own bibliographical impulses and interest in literary archaeology. Including the citations allows the original texts to slide more readily into an uncanny space of familiar yet not. Craig Dworkin argues that “the test of poetry [is] no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” Authors are now judged not by the quality of their writing but of the infallibility of their choices.

Helen: The title piece of your book is, to quote your summary of the piece, “an exhaustive record of every incidence of the words “write” or “writes” in 40 different English-language texts. These texts were picked aesthetically and to represent a disparate number of genres.” Do you see conceptual writing as an organic movement that has grown naturally out of the long and complicated history and interaction of English-language writers through the centuries, or is conceptual writing a sharp and conscious break from literary history? In compiling lines from disparate genres, are you demonstrating that all writers and writing are in it together, or are you subsuming other genres to fuel conceptualism?

derek: I think that Conceptual Writing is the application of theories from the visual arts which have been ignored (or at least under-represented) in the literary arts. Brion Gysin’s dictum that “writing is 50 years behind art” Is accurate in as much as it is sadly underestimating the length of time that writing has ignored the innovations occurring in other art forms. I think that collage and sampling texts is nothing new—even in writing—and I recommend Letham’s article “The Ecstasy of Influence” for a discussion of the historical precedents for appropriation in writing (Davis Sheilds’ Reality Hunger: a manifesto is another strong argument).

The thing is, when I discuss these issues with my high school students they look at me like I’m a simpleton. For them this is reality; the internet is not something that challenges who we are or how we write it IS who we are and how write.

Writers—being writers—are simply the last to realize the fact.

Helen: Your piece “Cross It over It,” “is a series of pornographic instructions pertaining both to tying a tie and to composing poetry” and gets laughs every time I’ve seen you read it. Is getting dressed in the morning and putting on a tie a type of classist masturbation? Is writing poetry like jerking off? Is writing conceptual poetry a white collar activity? Why is tying a tie or writing a poem so absurdly funny? Is your book jerking off on the reader? Finally, almost no women wear ties, and as instructions for masturbation, this piece could only be useful for those with penises. What does this say about male authorship and the role of women in conceptual writing?

derek: Writing poetry is very much a classist activity, and has been so for a very long time. Poetry is a completely disposable form as it has not remained contemporary. It is the domain of academics and specialists. Is this a bad thing though? If we require nuclear physicists and oncologists and mechanical engineers to have specialized dictions and stay contemporary with the most cutting edge of research and practices, why would we not require that of poetry?
I don’t know that is my place to comment on the role of women in conceptual poetry, though I would point to the work of Sarah Cullen, Emma Kay, M. NourbeSe Philip, Rachel Zolf, Alison Turnbull, Elisabeth Tonnard, Marjorie Perloff, Kate Eichorn (and others) as potential places to begin that exploration.

And lastly: If writing a poem is inherently funny it is because its hard to believe that the author had nothing better to do. It is inherently funny because we still chose an outdated form as a medium for argumentation. If we had something to say would we chose the poem—with its sliver of audience and lack of cultural cache—as the arena to announce that opinion?

Helen Hajnoczky’s first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

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