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How to Write

howtowrite I have seen a few people who like myself who initially saw the title and grabbed it, then set it down puzzled and moved on immediately As a sort of conceptual poetry, it has two layers: the immediate payoff and the wtf is this that opens up questions of process and authorship. It’s a book about questioning thru action the processes one does as a writer and reader.

On first skim, some pages are dense text without paragraph breaks, others, unrelated paragraphs. Each piece takes a different sort of tack.

Some pieces are torn from the pixels of spam, or from the dots of pop art. Another selectively filters a text for numbers in the text. That spins in a different and comparable way to how Rachel Zolf does in her Neighbour Procedure.

What does the poet’s selective eye choose? In Zolf’s case a “neutral list” of the dead, given powerful effect by accumulation — listing names without context except for our knowing it is associated with Gaza and what we bring to it, being able to distinguish the interspersed tumble of typical Arabic names and typical Jewish names and the following list which is just numbers that cascade.

derek beaulieu
derek beaulieu (right) takes a text of Agathy Christie and lists only numbers, taking a source text that is emotive and plot-arced and stripping it down for the count. It becomes a sort of act of noticing and absurdity. There’s minimal lineation and inherent rhythm.

At the same time it is instructive and funny how essentially a list poem, words excised from context can rebuild a sense of place. beaulieu’s solid text block in Wild Rose Country gives a different emotional impact. The reader’s internalized context tells you that you are seeing license plates and signs in windows.

There’s an experience in reader of assembling the accumulation as your mental map builds a world and frames what is ubiquitous in that poem. It is not using anything but a list but is showing the poet’s eye of attention. No word there is new but its arrangement is. There is no lineation. It plays the game of hooking curiosity of the reader in setting up the mystery of figuring out what is going on.

At his OIWF reading, beaulieu said that the inside of his book by default convention of what goes on the copyright page, gives him copyright over content, but he didn’t write a word of it. How to Write (Talon 2010) is blurbed as saying:

How to Write is a perverse Coles Notes: a paradigm of prosody where writing as sampling, borrowing, cutting-and-pasting and mash-up meets literature. […] How to Write is an instruction manual for the demise of ownership.

How to Write, is also, incidentally, a kick to read aloud in the park to somone as a guessing game of what it is about or where from.

It seems a frequent preoccupation of young poets in workshops of how similar our work can be to someone else’s before the head of plagiarism pops up.

What does the frame of copyright do, by implication, to the roles of reader and writer and what you are allowed to think about? It spins out to a fear factor in not copying rather than an engagement with mentorship or a play with the past as material objects rather than hierarchically important precedents.

Is that little (c) in cooperation with building a common good, or in opposition to it? Does copyright mean giving due to someone you are in dialogue with, or breathing in ideas with forms to fill out before one can breathe out again?

It is a work that looks at lines, verbal and social. What would motivate these items to be selected as worthy of attention? It brings forward the question in practice…

What are we curating? And why?
We might consider the word choice of what we present, take cares with line breaks or meter or length or market or divulgence, but what about the subtext of inclusions and omissions? Are we arbitrarily banning some things, such as pop culture, or recounted speech or kittens or lack of car bombs because it doesn’t fit the poem or repertoire? What is driving which? In the name of what? What’s set on the line? Need it be?

No matter what style of writing one does, writers are acting as curators and collectors of what we noticed and/or imagined.

Even silence is an act. Omission, commission equal sins or virtues. “…every text’s about saying something, even if that something is nothing at all. This is the metamorphosis of soundlessness into silence…” – Vanessa Place from “Ventouses” in Notes on Conceptualisms [via Matt Hart]

Are we trying to make everything dovetail or to avoid perfect slip and click? Silliman said “conceptual writing supplants the rejection of closure – a common post-avant value – with the rejection of mastery.” Notes on Conceptualisms also says “Failure is the goal of conceptual writing.”

But how to navigate failing well enough so it looks deliberate? It seems cross-bred of dadaism and satire and Grandma Moses. A peculiar space. As you read pages of text that does not try to entreat you, what position does that put you in? Ignored as a reader? Voyeur? If you curate as a writer enough details, the finding sense in it is up to the reader. But to push thru the resistance, one doesn’t break a code and something elaborately hidden opens. It is a reflection of the world, non-caricatured patterns included. What’s your relationship to the transitory, the incidental, the profound, the permanent? What’s the role of selection?

What is caught by the filters?
When we compose poetry, we are making choices of what to exclude and include. If we use the arbitrary filter of what catches our eye, and the stuff we make up and imagine without an eye to what occurred, that’s one process. We can’t help but filter. What if we include every result of one aspect, say, only use words that end in n and/or have plosives?

We can filter by any kind of means. Hajnoczky’s book is comprised only of clippings from 1940s advertizing. Michael Lista’s Bloom is constraint based. At the same time they are generating new stories.

If we choose only words that fit the meter and harmoniously step thru a narrative arc of tension and release, that’s another filter of exclusion and inclusion. What works for the poem form, for the story if there is one, for tone, for all the little harrowing properties to yield some effect on the writer or reader.

What if we work with a filter of plunder verse? We selectively cherry pick from an arbitrary subset of words and syntax and make a new context with what we liked.

Rules “need to have” an internally consistent logic. If we plunder, we can’t also add stuff. (Except I have a series of poems where I do plundered lines, quotes in reverse order and in-filled with what they made me leap to.)

Do we work with mood or at the level of sound, or word or idea? Those sort of concerns are one aspect of process whether one is working with the material of letters and numbers in space and sound, decontextualized words, or words for stories.

When we translate from language to language, we are copying with a twist. When we do an ekphrastic of another person’s work, we are copying with a twist.

The lines blur on when it is substantially changed enough to be new. If you go thru someone’s poem and replace each concrete noun with a shoe, is it new?

Is the question of uniqueness or copying even the right question? As Ursula Le Guin said

I’ve met too many writers who haven’t read anything. No child, don’t reinvent the square wheel. Sit down for a couple years and read and see how it’s been done. Imitate shamelessly and don’t try to publish it.

When I first heard that, I backed that sentiment entirely. Enough bad poetry foist on the world. Learn something by listening before launching another flotilla of clichés. Now I’d revise that.

While I appreciate the value of not reinventing the square wheel, that answer overall, presumes that play to be for private discourse, not public discourse. It assumes that apprenticeship is to be cloistered and only when one evolves taller than the shoulders you are standing on, are you allowed to speak. That also seems derived from the proprietary culture.

belaulieu says that the habit of publishing means that he now has copyright on words he didn’t write, thus the cover with shadow authorship of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and the background of crossed out texts. But,

What is ownership?
Apparently sounds are open source. For example, no one can claim the bank of sibilants as proprietarily owned by a corporation (or hasn’t yet).

The letters of the alphabet are tools. I can’t tell you never to make another Mmmm. We take for granted we can use them, visually or acoustically as we like. Intuitively we know we can mess with them, only at the cost of legibility or criticism for being Philistines if we are inaudible, over-audible, or make a typo of repeated letters or omitted ones. Ownership takes a spin with typography. If they are from particular sets of fonts we are supposed to buy some if we are to profit from their use.

What about a few letters together? Acronyms or letter combinations with no ascribed meaning are usually up for grabs, with the exception of a few rightful ownership of urls.

Words? Usually we aren’t making up words and they are free to be used. The entire content of any verbal poem is stolen from a dictionary, and/or from the corpus of spoken word. Words, apart from a few trademarked words or phrases, are open source.

What about phrases or sentences? When you go to the level of phrase or sentence, that conventions say you can steal. Those apparently can be personalized and distinct.

Some people are quite vigilant to credit sources, mark off quotes by italics and indents, footnotes or end notes. Even if puncturing thru someone’s utterance, taking some as quotes, some a fast-forward jist, or twisted to new context in plunder, you generally state the source of what you are messing with to thank or give credit or blame.

That too can be a grey area where a great turn of phrase can be snatched and repackaged in a new context. Some would find that right, others contentious.

What if we take that pre-written poem with every noun in it changed to the word shoe, or a kind shoe of the appropriate number of matched syllables, have we made a new work? Or only if this new work, works? Or do we attach the withering words, derivative or slight? Is that considered not manipulated by enough sweat to be called the author’s own?

We reshuffle shapes and gestures at the level of letter, or word, line or whole work. It’s still play in the language and ideas.

When is something a whole new work?
At what point is the poem unequivocally of the maker? Does the general thrust have to change, say from straight up to satire? How much has the be the hand of the poet? Where in the remix culture is the boundary of what you can take and call dibs on to rebrand with your name?

When you review a poem, some people get prickly when you copy the whole poem. That’s called an entire intellectual property which should be bought, never shared for free. Excerpt sample are sanctioned. Other people just don’t want the unit of book to be shared for free, (eh Google).

Does (Unit) Size Matter?
What about in haiku? A few words is an entire work that calls dibs of creative ownership. Geof Huff’s pwoermds or Aram Saroyan’s minimal poems likewise.

Can we take the whole as the component? Do we take the component as the whole? Or must we mix? If we copy over an entire text faithfully by hand, is that devoted observation a new work?

He’s working in some pieces at the level of excised paragraph.

In concrete poetry, one can work at the level or letter or word to cut and paste what you didn’t make to make it new, visually, spatially, in idea.

In my over my dead corpus project (to be in chapbook next month) I searched for not phrases, or words but letter strings which may break across words, or be embedded in words.

I may cut off at the immediate word or phrase, or take the whole sentence of context and string these together. Some of vocabulary was found, cut and pasted for other purposes into a scrap notes file over 500 pages long.

Some of it was written by me for other purposes and then culled for letter combinations. For example at ditch, last year I excised any interesting bit for that poem around the letter combination of id

For Peng-ean Khoo in March

“Master Bridgenorth,” she said, “I blame no man’s creed, while I believe and follow my own”
— Sir Walter Scott, Peveril of the Peak

your four squared identity, glenridge bride
is a partridge overriding Florida

your new fridge is ridiculing strident pride
on the Frida-Coleridge corridor on a Friday which is on

an April 1st, (which year tba.) but something is agreed and
freed up in the rich ride of rawness with equal indifferent

comfort for sex, or bikes. that’s sexual freedom
riddled with complexity at Rideau & Cobourg, water under

the bridge still drinkable. how lurid our ideals or ideas
and their errant (Stride) around the Children

Riding Bicycles in Midyat (2004 or 2005?) who are educated
in conscious tongue on equality, subconscious acts

It mashes up pre-existing phrases and by new context formed of fragments makes a context.

Does intention matter?
When you have pages of culled questions (as the opening in How to Write is) that set against each other, the impact is up to the reader.

When read live, does it need some sort of extra filter to convert it to be accessible to the ear for immediate uptake orally/aurally?

Does Grice’s Maxims apply? Brevity and clarity are out the window with some poetry to reach a point more subtly or effectively. What about sincerity? Does social contract include messing with meaning anything at all? Or is it just phatic for reader, the cooperative partner in the exchange, to play as he or she will?

When confounded by intention of text, we meet our own mind. It’s like eating tofu. Neutral tone is sort of like tofu that can absorb ambient flavours i.e. projections.

We are habituated to being pandered to with a clear pitch for how we are to take something, a refined box choosing spicy sauce or sweet and sour or what have you. When text isn’t loaded the same, the mind scans for messages.

What are the rules of engagement with our readers?
Is there necessarily an intention to engage the reader, or only a setting out of information for the reader to come to?

What is necessary? Must the writer {amuse/pander/educate/inform/titillate/prove skill/throw bones/be honest/challenge/comfort/do whatever the writer feels}?

Does one include what is accurate but omit what is not as interesting? Does one collect all the uninteresting bits as a matter of practice because in aggregate they become interesting? Can we fudge? Can there be a question of reliable or unreliable narrator and story when there is minimal text?

Can we do anything but write about ourselves, even if obliquely? Must we stick to the truth-truth, or the emotional truth, or all bets are off?

Do we have to stick to real quotes or ethics doesn’t come to play as a variable and we can make up characters, voices, science?

Where’s your line?

Is there a line between communication and poem? Should there be?

When we read, are we looking at the negative spaces of what was omitted? Do we believe that nothing important was omitted or that everything meticulously was and go with what the intention of the poet is for telling that story? If we resist it, why bother the idea of listening?

When there is no story but clippings, does it manufacture a story? Or does the reader? Is there a deep meaning to get? Or WYSIWYG plus whatever you project as implications to or from the society?

Borrowing or Dialoguing?
How much can someone else’s parts be rolled into other things and called new “found poetry”? When reading prose some people excise and relineate and declare something published, when recontextualized, a found poem, an accidental poem, and call dibs. That’s suggesting the original author had no aesthetic intent and it is being salvaged to literary goodness.

But what if it is remixed to change the meaning of the component parts? Is that enough to make it new? A reply in the dialogue?

If one uses another’s work in the spirit of good will and cooperation is that different than if it were for the sake of satire, mockery, absurdism, criticism or stealthy snatch knowing you could market far better than the originator, in the spirit of Thomas Edison…quickest to the patent office, quickest to market is the inventor and credit.

What about machine or process generated?

How much does the writer have to be the writer? If we grab chunks of machine generated spam, we still act as curator and arranger.

What if we don’t choose? In 2006, Geoff Peters had a search algorithm compose google poems. One sample of what his bot got is:

We should Not use Guantanamo Bay To Avoid
The Constitution
by claiming that sovereignty was indeed divisible
into roughly 25 particles increased linearly

He is nudging and searching again and redirecting his results. In flarf there’s less hands on, more disjuncture and nonsense.

If one didn’t write it, is one the author? If one is responsible for getting ideas together, one is responsible for the results.

Is one responsible for the reader or is it every person for himself or herself? When one has theatre or music that plays conceptually, the audience can become vexed and feel outside of the process, as if a trick is being played. Whose job is it to get into the conversation?

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] review of How To Write by derek beaulieu originally appeared on her blog Pesbo in May of 2010. This entry was posted in Blog and tagged Derek Beaulieu, […]