We have a new version of How to Write, or a variation on the theme in any case. Calgary visual and conceptual poet derek beaulieu has started an exhaustive project that will be comprised of "every incidence of the word 'edit' in the over 1100 different English-Language texts store at Project Gutenberg indexed as starting with the letter 'A'." The chapbook, from No Press (more on that later), is a slender volume titled How To Edit: Chapter A, and will be, when beaulieu arrives at Chapter Z, a conceptual novel of some dimensions.
The book begins with an apt quote from Walter Benjamin, "But when shall we actually write books like catalogues?" One can't be sure what the question mark is doing at the end of that sentence, and what precisely Benjamin is hoping for or intoning, which makes it all the more fitting for this project. What beaulieu offers through his compiling and archiving is a slice of literary consciousness around the practice of and attitude toward the practice of editing. I have voiced both my excitement of the conceptual novel, and my hesitations regarding its limitations as a readable text (as far as one can define readable) both in private, and on this blog, so isn't surprising that I went into the text with a sense of reserved curiosity. And lo, I was once more rewarded. Not a predictable kind of narrative here, but pleasure, certainly pleasure.
The volume beings "It was his intention to edit them with the necessary notes and vocabularies..." establishing a kind of odd formality that is carried through, even as the lines offered shift from the banal:
In later years, after Amorach's death, the marked advance in the outcome of the firm as regards type and paper and title-pages and designs may be attributed to Froben, who was man of business enough to realize the importance of getting good men to serve him--Erasmus to edit books, Gerbell and Oecolampadius to correct the proofs, Graf and Holbein to provide the ornaments.to the pulpish,
'You used to be a literary cuss,' he said at length, 'didn't you edit the magazine before you left?'This is uncreative writing in the sense of Kenneth Goldsmith's infamous course offered at U Penn, and it's a clever, fun, and so far I would say successful project. Far from being the kind of non-emotive product one might suspect such a conceptual work to intone, the very act of judiciously searching and compiling offers us a unique perspective into the very tangible world of book making, and for the author's deep respect for and love of the physical as well as conceptual arts. In some ways this is a romantic novel even as it is concerned with notions of "archive" "rematerialization," or as Craig Dworkin points out language as "printed matter - information which has a kind of physical presence." In his introduction to conceptual writing, he quotes Robert Smithson, who said "My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas." So, A Heap of Language, Dworkin suggests. And like the work of Kenneth Goldsmith much is revealed in the unearthing of that materiality.
Artistically, globally, this idea of matter as a preoccupation makes sense. Artists from Edward Burtynsky to Andreas Gursky are trying to deal with the sheer enormity of matter in its various stages of development and redevelopment. So why not text? And moving away from romantic notions of narrative might be essential too. These are movements that find the edges for us. The gesture in the darkened room that finds the wall so we can all creep out without tripping over ourselves. This sort of project, can be instructive, illuminating. How To Write has great promise.
In that respect beaulieu has been busy this year. Last week a launch of Chains with accompanying art, and in the fall Flatland: A Romance of Dimensions (Information as Material, 2007), another conceptual novel,with an afterword by none other than Marjorie Perloff. Christian Bok describes the project succinctly:
Flatland by Derek Beaulieu constitutes a translation of the science-fiction novella Flatland by the Victorian, political satirist, E. A. Abbott (who depicts a 2D-universe, inhabited by a society of polygons, all of whom remain oblivious to our own 3D-universe). Beaulieu uses this book as an occasion to transform the action of reading into a phylum of mapping, doing so by plotting the successive occurrence of letters, from line to line in a current edition of the text, thus connecting the dots, first by linking all the As, then by linking all the Bs, proceeding in this way through the page, 26 times, before moving on to the next page of text.You can find a sample of Flatland in the Mis/Translation folio of Drunken Boat, and the entire book is now available as a pdf through Ubu. In her afterword Perloff notes that while "the page may thus be an EKG that gives us no information about value, a computer scan that gives that gives us no information about code." She goes on, "this is surely intentional: beaulieu has designed the book as an exercise in sameness and difference..." and further, "reading in this context, means to look very closely at what is in front of you so that you become familiar with the circuit of differentials. It is an effort that takes us back to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. And Stein's aphoristic sentence, 'The difference is spreading,' might be beaulieu's epigraph." While I appreciate the concept here, particularly in its early stages when beaulieu and I were corresponding about it, and while I respect and support the impulse to inact a response to such an odd text, as a reader I am not in fact satisfied by it. Nor can I agree that the impulse takes us back to Stein's project. Why? In short, listening to beaulieu talk about the project is much more engaging than encountering the textual artifact. That for me, has to be a line. In order for a conceptual novel to be successful, for this reader, surely it must--and of course the parameters of this will be infinitely debatable--the text must be able to speak for itself. How to Edit, it seems to me, succeeds on that score. I don't think Flatland does.
Finally a note about Chains, which is visual poetry (see an example here from an earlier post) that pushes at the boundaries and restrictions of the regular life of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet." I've written about beaulieu's visual work before: his Basho Poems, co-written/created with with Gary Barwin, his work reading the newspaper, both smart and beautifully executed. beaulieu may well be the most articulate poet in Canada when it comes to visual and conceptual poetry, and he has much to offer pedagogically as well as artistically. Records of earlier discussions and responses can be found here. I would love to read more critical work that opens up this work for the uninitiated.
As an aside, if you haven't heard Stein yet, please do so. Here she is reading from Making of Americans. Why the formatting has changed over the course of this post I have no idea...