Spotlight: Robert Fitterman

Interview by Ken L. Walker

robert fittermanMany people seem at a loss for what exactly to “call” the state and various creations within the current of American poetry.  Robert Fitterman (along with Vanessa Place) has harvested a project called Notes On Conceptualisms which provides twelve general principles in regards to Conceptual Poetry and what its attempts and executions are.  The book is delightfully humorous, perceptively aware and fairly informing.  NoC begins at the point of “allegory,” discerning allegorical writing from symbolic writing, testifying that “Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.”


Do you own a “Pavlovian dinner bell?” If so, do you use it?

No, but I do have a dinner bell—figuratively, metaphorically and allegorically.        

Was it a pre-meditated decision to make the book so delightfully funny or did it come out accidentally, arbitrarily?

Is it funny? Seriously?

I’m glad you find it funny. I think it’s funny. I know a lot of people don’t find it funny. I think Vanessa is funny, but her writing is generally not funny. She probably thinks I’m funny. We thought parts of the book were funny as an afterthought and we made parts of the book funny beforehand.

The book tries to straddle a space where the ideas can be presented artfully and playfully and… like my father says: “between a hard rock and whatever.” It’s not a straight-up scholarly book and it’s not a straight-up institutional critique of a scholarly book. What is pre-mediated, then, is a conceptual gesture towards both.

Recently, Vanessa and I made an impromptu film that pokes fun of Notes on Conceptualisms. It’s titled: “Notes on Conceptualisms: eastcoast/westcoast” and it rips the 1969 Smithson & Holt film titled “East coast West coast.” Below are the links to both of them:

What are your top five favorite bands/musicians? (off the top of your head…)

In the mid-90s, the lovely and brilliant poet Kim Rosenfield interviewed Jackson Mac Low for SHINY magazine, and she asked Jackson what his favorite color was. Jackson’s answer: “I don’t pick favorites.” My taste is broad and indelicate.

What are your top five favorite films?  (off the top of your skull…)

1. Avatar PG-13                                               

            12:45, 4:15, 7:45, 10:50  

2. Avatar 3D PG-13 3D

            12:00, 3:30, 6:55, 10:25

3. Did You Hear About the Morgans? PG-13           

            12:20, 2:50, 5:20, 7:50, 10:20  

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox PG                                            

            12:30, 2:40, 4:55, 7:00, 9:15

5. Ninja Assassin R                                                     

            12:55, 3:20, 5:45, 8:10, 10:40

Is it “allegory” that is the central/thesis factor regarding Conceptualisms? Or is “allegory” the centrifugal factor?

Vanessa writes that “allegory is, by nature, centrifugal.” As such, the term does begin and end the Conceptualisms essay. But it isn’t intended to be a central thesis to the essay—there is none. The essay is more exploration than assertion. The nice thing, though, about kicking it off with allegory is that the term is comfortable to writers, especially, as we try to distinguish conceptual writing from conceptual art. To paraphrase Steve Zultanski’s straight-forward definition: in conceptual writing, the most “poetic” or artful element might not be the text itself. That “might not be” extends our traditional thinking about allegory to include a post-Duchampean relationship to allegory.

Do NON-allegorical writers utilize/make use of the “full array of possibilities?” How would that work?

Firstly, I don’t see “allegory” and “conceptual” as synonymous. There are many poets working with allegory in different ways, and in dialogue with different lineages. Matvei Yankelevich’s new book, Boris By The Sea, is an allegorical fable of sorts, but I don’t think he would consider it a text of conceptual writing. If you mean non-conceptual writers, I would say that leads to an unnecessary bifurcation. The range of conceptual possibilities is very much in flux, and part of our effort with the book is to encourage the strategic “possibilities” of this spectrum. I think there’s a misconception that materiality is on one end and conceptualism is on the other… I think this is a mistake. In Conceptual Art of the 60s, there was a clearly stated objective that ideas should take precedence over materiality. Conceptual writing retains some of that spirit, but without the hierarchal claim. Why? Conceptual writers are not reacting to commodification in the art market, but to the inundation of text that floods our lives. Conceptual writing strategies—especially appropriation, durational texts, archiving, researching, etc.—speak to these concerns. Traditional verse, of course, might address these concerns via content, but without the formal strategy that mimics our rapidly changing relationship to technology and the written word.

What percentage of currently-working poets would you estimate write/operate conceptually?

I don’t think it matters… but I’ll answer the question anyway. Poets are a tiny piece of the culture-making pie, and progressive/innovative poets make up an even smaller unit, so you can see where I’m going with this. Still, I would say that there are probably 40 or so poets around my age who would consider themselves “conceptual writers”. I’m excited about so many younger poets who would consider themselves to be coming out of this tradition, such as: Lawrence Giffin, Marie Buck, Kareem Estefan, Danny Snelson, Diana Hamilton, Patrick Lovelace, Eddie Hopely, Steve Zultanski, Brad Flis, and many others. Also, I was recently invited to a poetics conference in Norway, and there were several young writers from Scandinavia who consider themselves “conceptual writers”. So I guess it adds up.

But, here’s why I said it doesn’t matter… experimental poetry has a long shelf life. Even if the community is small, the conversation could be vital to the future of the art. In a way, the audience is always the future and the argument about accessibility is a red herring. Beyond the numbers, what’s crucial is to articulate, foster, and engage in a conversation that speaks to the dialogues of the day (and there may be many). The number of soldiers is not the point, as evidenced by The Objectivists or The Situationists.

If “failure” is “the goal” and editing appropriated material is “impure,” where does “success” fit in?

Failure for the writer means success for the reader. As we say in the essay: “failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery.” We have witnessed the “success” of an official verse culture poem, and the qualities that have been heralded by the creative writing workshop. In Notes, we write about failure as a way to violate the text from within with the hope that “this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair.” This relationship to failure is aligned to a position L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers usefully articulated—they sought to achieve this through broken syntax, while many conceptual writers use normative syntax (albeit often readymade) to the same end. 

If poets want to enter the arena of culture-makers, they might want to consider the dialogues that are happening in the culture around them and create works that speak to those conversations. In the other arts, the audience is especially active as part of this dialogue, and that’s where the “success” in failed art works is more inviting that the perfected or packaged art work that is recognizable as such. This “arena” is a place where radical ideas can be exchanged and one either believes there’s good in that or not. As such, the action is on the receiving end, and I say “action” because the more I think about “success” the more nauseous I start to feel. Doesn’t the whole success thang have a distinctively American feel to it? The editing of appropriated materials is not “impure” as I see it, but the term “impure” was what we used to describe a conceptual project that chooses to trip up its own making—more sampling and less readymade. In terms of LeWitt’s idea of conceptual art making—where the artist must not interfere with the preset idea—one might see this sort of editing as a rupture or impurity of that more rigid form of conceptualism. My own work tends to be more on the “impure” side of the equation, so I’m certainly not suggesting a hierarchy here, and I think that might be a problem with the term “impure” for some readers.


Do you, personally, think the Capitalist system will continue, as it has, to swallow “art” with its rhinoceros mouth? 


As we claim in the essay, Capitalism has the capability to absorb even its own critique. Think of Citibank ads with line breaks or disjointed phrases. The most challenging conceptual writing, often critiqued as lazy or boring or unreadable, will probably be commodified down the road.  But, on some level, this is what appropriation of popular culture in poetry is all about. Here’s a quote we use from Buchloh: “The allegorical mind sides with object and protests against its devaluation to the status of a commodity by devaluating it for the second time…” Doesn’t this predict that very same Capitalist absorption where replication is a form of resistance?

“Hybrid” (in the sense of the newest Norton Anthology and informal discussions) seems kind of bullshit or made-up-out-of-thin-air for something particular yet hard to pin down with one thumb.  Your thoughts?

I agree that the term “hybrid” is too slippery or vague. For our essay, I wanted to borrow Tim Davis’s term “kinda conceptual” or use “muddy conceptual” but those terms didn’t seem quite right either. In other conversations, like the Norton Anthology cited above, doesn’t it refer to hybrid forms and genre-blurring? That’s a very different use of the term. In our essay, we use the term to mean part-appropriated, part-conceptual, part original text, etc.  We imagine a spectrum of conceptual writing strategies so that “hybrid” strategies could be seen as falling into that spectrum. In this way, “hybrid” has a fairly narrow or specific definition as it opposes the more “pure” or systematically prescribed pre-text strategies.

In visual art, Post-conceptualism and Appropriation Art are akin to this notion of the “hybrid” as we define it in the Notes essay. The conceptualism is more muddied and the procedures are more sloppy and interrupted (often by a re-emergent subjectivity).  I’m interested in the permissiveness of this muddy conceptual model and how it might echo more chaos.

I think the “Institutional Critique”/institutionalism section is quite possibly the most compelling and interesting part of the book. What are your thoughts of the MFA experience?  A friend and I, both with MFAs in poetry, joke about it being a fungi on the craft.

It is not surprising that poetry has not had very much Institutional Critique because we don’t have the same kind of institution that the art world has. Still there are several examples, ranging from Charles Bernstein’s poem Recantorium, to Gary Sullivan’s erasures of literary magazine rejection letters, to Rachel Zolf’s The Tolerance Project (a direct critique of the MFA experience where Zolf uses other poets’ material to compose workshop poems). Additionally, a lot of poets are using the performance space of the poetry reading as an Institutional Critique of the “Poetry Reading.”

fitterman quoteI think we’ve driven the “craft of poetry” into the ground. After all, Kraft is just bad cheese. I’m optimistic at my core, and rather than belabor the obvious about the moderate modernism of MFAs, I’m hoping that we’re starting to see a new breed of programs, where poets are treated like artist and culture-makers who are engaged with the most challenging ideas of our day. Otherwise, we’re stuck with our cultural exemption status and delegated to several more decades of greeting card relevance.

I’ve been working on re-crafting old, rather “useless” or “outdated” science books into love poems by a process of erasure, deletion, etc.  Constellation-making. Is this an example of conceptual-art-meets-poetry; what I mean is, are there processes that apply conceptually but do not execute conceptually?

For me, this is an example of conceptual writing, but you’d have to decide how much the erasure and appropriated source material is fore-grounded. In the Introduction to Notes, I begin by talking about erasure techniques because it is such a common practice of late and very much relevant to conceptual writing. The very act of erasure brings meaning to the piece, as well as the act of appropriating source texts. As a writer, one then has a whole range of choices as to how much one wants to point to these strategies. One might hide all of that and create a “successful” poem with no real trace of these strategies. As such, there isn’t much of a conceptual element there because the author is pulling us into the completed text. On the other hand, if the erasure and source texts are fore-grounded, then the reader has that concept or idea to work with as well. In this way the reader is pulled to ideas outside of the text. To repurpose or constellate devalued or “useless” language is a common strategy in conceptual writing, especially as it draws attention to this very process of repurposing.

To  repeat myself: ours is an age not of invention but inventory.

This too is allegorical.

In one word, why is a word an object?



[Interview conducted by e-mail in Nov/Dec 2009]


Robert Fitterman is co-author (with Vanessa Place) of Notes on Conceptualisms.