lyric conceptualism

Venn diagram of Greek, Latin, and Russian alphabets

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

Andy Verboom: When I think about the relations among conceptual, lyric, and formal poetic practices, I have a foggy Venn diagram in mind. Certain techniques, modes, and tropes, certain orientations toward subject matter, audience, and language, etc.—each could be, with some effort, located in one of the overlapping sections or, occasionally, in one of the exclusive sections. A spatial classification of this sort may not really benefit poets in their practice, but it’s certainly more useful, I think, than imagining either a typology of poets (like a bestiary) or a temporal account of different poetic lineages (like the ‘poetry schools’ model) based on self-declared and critic-ascribed affinities.

In an interview about your PRISM Poetry Contest-winning poem, “Flood of ’37,” you say that you’re “interested in the way the lyric can time travel and layer multiple eras on top of each other.” I want to return to that lyric potential in a more serious way—to ask, for instance, if it’s a quality exclusive to or especially prominent in lyric poetry—but for now I’m wondering if you, lyric poet that you are, can send yourself back five years or so. When did you first encounter Sina Queyras’s “Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto in Progress”? And how did it affect your conception of lyric poetry in relation to other poetries?

Kevin Shaw: I do like a good Venn diagram! It’s a useful metaphor, even if I don’t think typologies are necessarily bad or unproductive, though they might be more the critic and reviewer’s task than the poet’s.

I think I first read “Lyric Conceptualism” around the time I was finishing my MA at the University of Windsor. That’s where I had first been introduced (in a seminar with Susan Holbrook) to writers like Lyn Hejinian and Kenneth Goldsmith, writers who pushed the limits of what I thought poetry was or could do. Even if I wasn’t necessarily interested in making their modes mine, it was a useful exposure and challenge. Around the same time, I was following debates on poetics happening in journals and online, and it seemed like one had to pledge allegiance to one of several factions. I remember “Lyric Conceptualism” struck me not only as a critique and extension of Conceptualism; it also showed me how different -isms can be in productive tension and conversation with each other. And that’s a practice that can be taken into reading, teaching, workshops, etc.

This is why I think journals are so valuable; I can dip into different segments of your Venn diagram, or see how different methods rub against each other, with a smaller investment of time. I’m wondering about your own reading practice. Do you make a point of reading widely across a number of different ‘schools,’ or is it more serendipitous? And how has your reading influenced your approach to writing and, especially, to your collaborative projects?

… ‘Lyric Conceptualism’ struck me not only as a critique and extension of Conceptualism; it also showed me how different -isms can be in productive tension and conversation with each other.

AV: I prefer more or less formal lyric. My reader-brain is activated by legible or detectable constraint—for me, it’s often the most appealing path into a poem—so I’m also intrigued by formal lyric that employs conceptual compositional constraints. I want to see a work as evidence of work. I guess that establishes both of us as interlopers in the field of Conceptual poetry. But our shared Conceptual inexpertise is exactly why I (plausibly classifiable as a ‘formal poet’) wanted to talk to you (plausibly classifiable as a ‘lyric poet’) about “Lyric Conceptualism.”

Queyras’s manifesto declares a poetics that attends to readability (by balancing concern for structure with concern for content) and to artistic activism (by balancing concerns for self, poetic subject, and community). Her poetics also seems to identify an already trod (a “not new”) middle way between Romantic excesses and Conceptual excesses: it can be sincere without becoming “naive,” and it can be archival, appropriative, and remixological without letting those practices lead it by the nose into “the merely virtual or textual.”

If these are the three primary correctives of lyric conceptualism—it reorients conceptual practices toward readerships, it reorients those practices toward responsibilities, and it treats best practices as optional tactics plucked for their usefulness from the breadth of poetic lineages—then I’d say Queyras and I are on the same page. In your view, though, does the notion of ‘conscientious’ conceptualism—with an emphasis on intra- and extra-poetic responsibility to others, a tilting of the balance in favour of communities—have the potential to add anything useful to the discussion? Or it just another belated addition to the terminology of lyric conceptualism?

KS: I’m not quite sure how to answer these (great) questions. That said, I don’t think questioning ethics in writing, as you’re doing this month, is something we’re ever done with. I think it’s probably more useful for me to talk about where reading the manifesto took me in terms of practice as a reader and a writer rather than getting into the theoretical debates (as there are several people better versed than me who have already contributed!).

… the ‘I’ can move back and forth between historical persona and contemporary subject. I write (probably too many) super gay, if fairly traditional, love lyrics with pseudo-historical speakers for that reason, as a way of going back into that seemingly closed genre and messing around.

One of my favourite lines in Queyras’s manifesto is “Lyric Conceptualism accepts the tension between the self and the poetic subject, wrestling always with the desire to give over to the poem and to be the poet in the poem.” To come back to your earlier question about the historical potential in lyric poetry—no, I don’t think it’s exclusive to lyric poetry. Methods of cut-up, collage, and erasure seem particularly well suited to doing work with time and history. (I think, for example, of books like M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Jordan Abel’s Un/inhabited.) But I’m also interested in the shiftiness of the so-called “lyric I,” especially in historical writing, where the “I” can move back and forth between historical persona and contemporary subject. I write (probably too many) super gay, if fairly traditional, love lyrics with pseudo-historical speakers for that reason, as a way of going back into that seemingly closed genre and messing around.

I’m curious about how you see these questions—of overlap and of thinking in terms of poetries rather than Poetry—playing out in terms of community practice and ethics. You organize Couplets, a reading series in London that pairs two poets who read both their own writing as well as collaborative work. I collaborated with Madeline Bassnett and found it a great experience—one that makes the process as important as the product (the final poems and reading.) Can you talk about what interests you about that kind of format? And, perhaps, the role of the poet vis-à-vis “the public”?

AV: I appreciate your pushback against my questions: I’m asking you to theorize on theories of praxis with me, and you’re saying, ‘Hey, maybe join me back here in practical land.’ And now I’ve basically theorized your refusal of theory. Ironically, that’s my primary issue with unalloyed Conceptualism: it’s so concerned with structural critique that it sacrifices practical responsibility.

To your question of overlapping poetries, then, I would say that any poem written out of almost exclusively conceptual concerns (or almost exclusively lyric concerns or almost exclusively formal concerns) is fated to be aesthetically boring and, in an admittedly less determinate sense, predisposed to ethical tunnel vision. The overlaps of poetry are where it’s at. Otherwise you end up with—and I don’t mind fighting scarecrows here—misappropriative poetry, eye-rollingly self-indulgent slam poetry, and sequences of birdwatching sonnets. Those are comfortable, easy poetries, both to produce and to consume. They don’t often require their poets to risk anything, and they don’t push their audiences to a place of self-reassessment. The role of poets (which should always be considered, first, vis-à-vis with their publics) is to do precisely the opposite: put yourself at risk and, through that self-risk, dis-ease your audience.

If you’re trying to respond to an absence in the record, it’s not enough to just go back and fill up the edges and corners. There’s always the risk, perhaps inescapable anyway, of reproducing the very conditions and constraints you’re trying to break. So the strategy is to disturb the logics and timelines …

The format of Couplets is meant, in a very small way, to dis-ease both the performers and the audience. The series coerces poets of dissimilar social communities, ethical orientations, and writing practices into collaboration, and ideally this collaboration nudges them out of their comfort zones, prompting them to consider new audiences, tactics, and tools. If collaboration forces both poets into contortions, that makes for better (at least more interesting) poetry, which makes for a better show. And the ad-hoc collaborative performance doesn’t guaranteed the audience any particular content or a comfortable consumption experience.

In this regard, the most effective Couplets of the first season involved the two collaborators, Jason Dickson and Kevin Heslop, performing in-character satirical odes to historic London buildings and then roasting me with erotic poetry. It was unexpected (given their previous work), hilarious, and uncomfortable. It really pissed off some people who think lyric sincerity is the only legitimate poetic mode and who took comedy as a personal attack on their writing practices. I would love for two or more people to leave each Couplets angry, and at least one to leave it blushing. Frankly, though, London is a disproportionately white, middle-class city, so making really contrastive pairings has been more work than I expected. As the series gains credibility and fundability, I hope to leverage those in reaching beyond my own very limited poetry communities—beyond roping friends into participating for free—and in scheduling more diverse collaborations.

… all poetic conventions (in lyric or otherwise) are like so many TARDIS ships—even better that it’s a police box. The TARDIS can move its occupants across time and space; its interior is more expansive than it appears from the outside.

Speaking of colonial history, let’s at last and directly address this question of lyric time travel. Forgive me for returning to theory for a second. Kenneth Goldsmith’s response to Queyras’s manifesto finds historical precedent for lyric conceptualism in post-conceptual (or post-minimalist) visual art—an aesthetic of “the soft grid”—which he recounts as a ‘feminine’ reaction to a ‘masculine’ minimalist aesthetic of the grid. This underwrites his (presumptive, in my opinion) reframing of lyric conceptualism as a school of post-conceptual poetry. Queyras, in her response to his response, acknowledges the parallel but notes that her “Manifesto in Progress”

resisted the impulse to historicize, not out of disrespect for lineage, but as a resistance to canon making and as a resistance to mastery and ownership of ideas and aesthetics …[.] Clubs have not been kind to women over the years. They tend to keep them out, or corral them into enclosures […]. Hence, the impure, guerillaish, outsider position of the Lyric Conceptualist muddying categories and stealing tools to be used in wild combinations at her discretion.

lyric conceptualism

“… all poetic conventions (in lyric or otherwise) are like so many TARDIS ships—even better that it’s a police box.”

When it comes to addressing history, I’m all for the importance of provisionality (the “in Progress” of her manifesto’s title). Does her resistance to historicization resonate with your approach to lyric time travel? I’m thinking particularly of the work in your first poetry collection, Smaller Hours, which is forthcoming from Goose Lane’s icehouse imprint.

KS: The idea of “muddying categories” definitely resonates. I was interested in how I could represent gay sex and love historically. If you’re trying to respond to an absence in the record, it’s not enough to just go back and fill up the edges and corners. There’s always the risk, perhaps inescapable anyway, of reproducing the very conditions and constraints you’re trying to break. So the strategy is to disturb the logics and timelines as those new images are being made, as many LGBTQ writers and artists (and others) have done. That said, I love form and symmetry and rhyme. So it became about what to do with the “I” and letting it get a bit wonky in terms of referent: who’s speaking and when? Along these lines, another important essay for me was Aaron Smith’s “The Very Act of Telling.” He writes,

I’m concerned about the voice that says: Take the “I” out. Whose voice is this, really? Perhaps I resist it because it feels dangerously similar to the voice I recognize from childhood: the fundamentalist voice of fear and doubt, the voice that eradicates the body and the self, the voice of conformity that renders the individual speechless, invisible.

The “I” can be played with, and pushed to its logical limit, but I don’t think we can all say we’re ‘over it,’ or that its power can be taken for granted. I’m not a big Doctor Who fan (more team Torchwood), but ideally, for me, all poetic conventions (in lyric or otherwise) are like so many TARDIS ships—even better that it’s a police box. The TARDIS can move its occupants across time and space; its interior is more expansive than it appears from the outside. I think Queyras says it best at the end of her response to Goldsmith:

Poetry, all poetry, must help us make sense of our moment. It must reflect our time. To romanticize nature—or indeed the self—in the 21st Century is to have your head up your back end. But to think that the conceptual can kill the speaking subject, or that this is the answer to the problem, is equally problematic.

Kevin Shaw was born and raised in London, ON, where he recently completed a PhD in Canadian literature at Western. His poetry and non-fiction have appeared in CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead, and The New Quarterly. He has received the Arc Poem of the Year award and the Grand Prize in the PRISM international Poetry Contest. His debut poetry collection, Smaller Hours, is forthcoming from icehouse poetry this fall.

Andy Verboom is from subrural Nova Scotia and lives in London, ON, where he organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series, and edits Word Hoard, a journal of creative and academic dialogues. His poetry has won Descant’s Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem, been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year, and appeared in Arc, CV2, BafterC, The Puritan, and Vallum. His chapbooks are Tower (Anstruther, 2016), Full Mondegreens (Frog Hollow, 2016), and Orthric Sonnets (Baseline, 2017).

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