There’s a new contest for Texas writers called ARTlines: An Ekphrastic Poetry Competition, sponsored by a new reading series in Houston called Public Poetry in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. When I first read about the contest, I was excited; I want to support any opportunity for cross-fertilization between writing and visual arts. But as I read through the guidelines, I became progressively less enthused. There are a number of points I found troubling, and many of them seem indicative of a general conservatism and lack of a will to experiment.
I’ll enumerate some of my concerns by discussing some of the guidelines I found particularly tough to swallow. I want to make clear that I am not trying to attack this effort (that in theory I support), rather I’m bringing this up out of a desire to spark dialogue and to get people thinking outside of the box (sorry for the in-the-box cliché). You can check out the guidelines yourself here. The deadline is December 30th.
1) All poems will be checked with anti-plagiarism software.
At an Inprint reading this October on the University of Houston campus, Michael Ondaatje said that, besides for jazz, collage was the most important artistic development of the twentieth century. Of course, much experimental and non-experimental poetry from the last hundred years (and even before then) re-uses, recycles and appropriates other texts. The idea that we could run these poems through Turnitin.com like a term paper is really disappointing. Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” seems relevant. In the visual art world and in music, what’s become mainstream are collage, assemblage, sampling, recontextualization and other forms of appropriation. The last 100 years of experimentation in the art world has made the idea of “plagiarism” in art seem quaint and outmoded. The visual artist and musician is understood to create out of other artwork, to build from the work of others. See Richard Prince’s re-photographs or the entire history of hip-hop. If appropriation were defined as “plagiarism” in the art world, we’d have to get rid of all collages, assemblages and most conceptual art: no Andy Warhol re-painting Campbell’s cans and Marcel DuChamp would need to uninstall his urinal. To my mind, appropriation is a part of art, not something to be policed by anti-plagiarism software.
Some of the most vital and exciting developments in writing over the last ten years have been in the areas of appropriation, erasure, cut-ups, flarf and conceptual writing, among others. These poetic movements reclaimed a long history of appropriation, collage and sampling. This history stretches back through the avant-garde poetics of the second half of the twentieth century to the Modernists and even further back. As long as there has been writing, there has been copying. It’s a part of artistic practice. I would argue for a much more open definition of literary art; I’d also argue that we should embrace appropriation, recontextualization, sampling and recycling as generative strategies for writing, not see it as “plagiarism.” Some contemporary references for a plagiarizing poetics: Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Erica Baum, M. Nourbese Phillip, Craig Dworkin, Tom Phillips, Jen Bervin, Don Mee Choi, Caroline Bergvall. The list could go on and on and on.
2) Entries must be inspired by artworks presented on this site.
“Inspiration” is the traditional route for ekphrastic work, and yet not all ekphrastic work is based on this idea of “inspiration.” I find ekphrastics to be an exciting field for poetic production, but I’m especially interested in ekphrasis outside of this idea of a “poem inspired by an artwork.” The literary critic Marjorie Perloff has talked about the history of ekphrasis shifting from Classical to Contemporary to Conceptual, from “about” to “along with” to “as.” I would argue for a more inclusive definition of ekphrasis and the multiple forms that ekphrasis can take. This contest could be a great opportunity to open up a discussion or a dialogue about what ekphrasis could be, what forms it might take, what it might look like in this internet age. I’m interested in a sense of play about ekphrasis and intellectually engaging with the notion of ekphrasis itself. One model for this kind of ekphrastic experimentation is the Pop Up Poets series at the SFMOMA: writers are invited to do a reading, performance or talk in response to an artwork with few guidelines or rules. This leaves the particular engagement completely at the will of the writer him or herself. SFMOMA also allows each writer to choose the artwork to which they’ll respond; not so in Houston where writers are given a set list from which to choose.
3) Language must be appropriate for museum audiences.
Defining “appropriateness” is practically impossible, and I’d argue that in an art context, attempting to define “appropriateness” leads us on a slippery slope to censorship. After decades of NEA wars and brave artists standing up to censorship (both overt and covert), I wonder why it is necessary to ask artists to write within undefined ideas of “appropriateness.” To my mind, almost any expression should be able to enter the museum since the space is supposed to be a site for intellectual exchange, provocation and dialogue. Are Henry Darger‘s paintings of sexualized children’s rebellion “appropriate?” What about Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochism images? What about Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker? Surely not appropriate. What is the definition of “appropriate for museum audience?” I do not think that all art needs to or should be appropriate for children. I read because I want to be shocked, made uncomfortable, blasted out of old ways of thinking. Let’s write some inappropriate words already!
4) All entries must use a 14-point Times Roman or New Times Roman font.
This last point might seem nit-picky, but obligating writers to use a 14-point Times Roman or New Times Roman font means that all the poetry will look like a large-font office memo. This guideline works against the idea that words also have a visual reality (see the amazing text art from the twentieth and twenty-first century). There’s a long and exciting history of visual poetry from the earliest writings and calligraphy to twentieth-century innovations in visual poetry, concrete poetry, etc. This requirement makes poetry into a flat, non-visual form. I’d rather the floodgates were thrown open and writers were encouraged to use different forms of writing: pens, pencils, weird paper, cut-ups, typewriters, mud, embroidery, whatever’s clever! Some of my favorite writers think about and experiment with the visual: for example, historical examples like William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, the Futurists and the Dadaists and contemporary poets like Douglas Kearney, Jen Bervin, Yedda Morrison, Myriam Moscona and Jen Hofer. I support allowing and encouraging poetry to exist in a multiplicity of visual forms, not restricting poetry to a particular font or size.
I had some other issues with the contest (pay-to-play and the length restrictions in particular), but I think I’ve said enough for one day. When we design exhibits or readings or contests, we make visible all of our assumptions about what poetry or art can be. And in this case, the kind of collaboration envisioned between writers and artists is deeply conservative. Let’s innovate, not stagnate. The world of poetry can seem like a calm, placid lake (Garrison Keillor’s sedated Lake Wobegon comes to mind) where everyone is on vacation and all is well in the world. It’s time to trouble the waters a bit, don’t you think?
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, educator and translator interested in experimental writing and radical aesthetics. His work has appeared in journals and magazines in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Rio Grande Review, Picnic, Third Text, Animal Shelter, HTMLGiant, Cite and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from the Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez and a police detective novel. A chapbook of his work is forthcoming in 2012 from Mouthfeel Press in El Paso.