Thursday, October 30, 2008

Upon Directing Hamlet

Tom Newman: Hamlet isn't just Hamlet. Oh no, no, no. Oh, no. Hamlet is me. Hamlet is Bosnia. Hamlet is this desk. Hamlet is the air. Hamlet is my grandmother. Hamlet is everything you ever thought about sex, about geology…

Joe Harper: Geology?

Tom Newman: In a very loose sense, or course.

--- from Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter

I’ve never seen the film in which the above lines are delivered but, out of context, they seem to me to address the greatness of Hamlet. The exchange not only suggests the multiplicity of the play but also the meta-textual arena through which we must experience it. Hamlet isn’t singularly profound according to an “objective” literary valuation --- we make it great (I couldn’t decide whether to italicize “we” or “make” right there). Appreciation of Shakespeare’s writing is often directed (imposed?) by academic context but, better looked into, the apparatus of valuation becomes as complicated and informative as the work (in its “central” position --- though I use the idea of centrality tentatively because the two aspects that perpetuate the text are probably inseparable and centrifugal). As a director I have developed an approach to Hamlet that I’m now applying through performance; I have come to understand that unqualified awe must be eschewed with deconstructive rigor in a movement toward significant awareness of the play. Since actors that I work with tend to be more comfortable with a process reliant on psychological causality and empathy it’s a challenge to expect them to be able to apply conceptualism that dislodges a motivational approach. Example: my sense of the “character” of Hamlet, developed by protracted close readings through various critical lenses, became more of a critique of coherent identity (or a positive recasting of Eliot’s complaints predicated on an attachment to an “objective correlative”) that reinterpreted Hamlet’s conflict as a schizophrenic fragmentation of selves unable to properly conflate within the dramatic context of the play. That’s a terribly devilish, maybe nearly impossible, intellectualization to ask an actor to viscerally express. Yet, according to a formalist reading, performative identity is a major theme. It’s not a matter of striking a balance between the soldier, courtier, and scholar that are remarked to be all in him --- Hamlet must also be an intertextual being; he must somehow also be this desk. One of the many stylistic/thematic choices we’ve made in rehearsals is to represent Yorrick’s skull with a large mirror that Hamlet stands in front of as he recites his famous lines --- upon considering death’s invalidation of personal existence Hamlet is facing not only a reflection of himself but of the entire audience seated behind him. The thematic conflation that constitutes the skull unfolds into a visualized network of meaning that encompasses not just the fictive situation of the drama but also the context of the production itself. This is the most challenging project I have ever attempted in my life. Although I work often as an (autodidactic) director, I am a writer, both by vocation and education, and feel most operational when embracing the gifts of solitude and interiority that practitioners of my craft tend to put to best use. The collaborative plane on which theater occurs messily affronts my abilities of artistic expression in ways both destabilizing and engaging. The writer’s struggle is private and intellectual while the director’s is discursive and interpersonal. In rehearsal the other day I had to instruct an actor how to move as slow as possible across the stage, without ever standing still, while carrying a very heavy and gnarled tree trunk on his back and delivering lines --- the experience, uncannily, felt like a literalized rendition of the introverted endeavor of the writer in a way that used the interactive grammar of performance. The aspect of theater that I most enjoy when I direct is watching and shaping the relational movement of bodies and beings articulating a text in exciting ways. While watching actors find their way through the material and across the stage with each other, when it really works, I sometimes find myself unable to remain still and begin to pace eagerly in the shadows where I attentively observe. Putting on Hamlet is a way of becoming Hamlet; maybe that’s as much a part of the thing as reading it and thinking about it.

(Lonely Christopher, web editor.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Here are two things, briefly:

1) Correspondence no. 1 is now available for sale at Unnameable Books of Brooklyn.

2) There have been recent entries to The Corresponding Society Author Catalog. There are a bunch of essays and interviews on the Lonely Christopher page and the new Greg Afinogenov page features translations of Russian poetry.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The stated deadline for submissions to Correspondence no. 2 is past but we’re still receptive of work for consideration and won’t disqualify based on negligible tardiness. Despite a particular tendency to prolong the submission period waiting for the procrastinators, who presumably wade in the river Lethe and consequently delay our optimistic schedules through their pathology, we’ve already accrued a cache of shiny new work to benefit our happy second issue. I can’t say how long we’ll be capable of regarding late submissions but it’s possibly appropriate to clarify the somewhat nominal quality of the deadline to alleviate the anxiety of the excusably delayed while encouraging those unaware of the opportunity. It’s early yet to estimate when the book will be prepared but we’re ready to assert the unlikelihood of offensively long delays. Submissions received so late that they miss the nebulous, implied, but unspecific deadline-like timeframe won’t be able to be reviewed and it’s the dilatory writer’s own fault, sort of. The submission guidelines can be found here. Please note that submitting multiple files is extremely unhelpful --- we’d prefer the work all in one .doc file, thank you.

We begin work on our next project but Correspondence no. 1 remains available through methods of purchase both convenient and convoluted. For those favoring ease of use, we now sell Correspondence online, by Paypal, through the store on our website. For those deathly afraid of a newfangled confusion like Paypal we would like to mention that we generously continue to accept orders through the postal service (just email us at thecorrespondingsociety [at] with your address and we’ll reply in kind). This issue includes an essay on the rhetoric of the Apocalypse, a poem with the line, “the book goes in the fire like an internet of seaweed round his cock,” a savage explosion of Persephone’s myth, the entire alphabet, a demand for poetry by Richard Loranger, and much else unfamiliar. It’s also probably still available at the Bowery Poetry Club and through Poem Shop.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lonely Christopher in Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith studied sculpture at RISD but has become the foremost practitioner of Conceptual Writing. He curates the invaluable archive of avant-garde material called Ubuweb, hosts a radio show on WFMU, and acts as a spokesperson for his contemporary poetics online, in print, and at academic conferences. His books are expressions of what he calls “uncreative writing”: renegotiations of the value systems upon which literature rests. The work ranges from entertaining (Soliloquy transcribes every word he said over the course of one week), to hypnotic (The Weather, a short volume, is a year’s worth of radio forecasts), to presumably readable only by madmen (the thick Day contains every character printed in one copy of The New York Times). Although he frequently suggests the idea of the texts should substitute for the experience of reading them, when somebody is inclined to make the effort she confronts a vacuum in which, paradoxically, everything is breathing with meaning. Kenneth is the subject of the 2007 documentary Sucking on Words, which is available to view online. Though I’ve heard his peers accuse him of being a confidence man, the implications of his work have been addressed extensively by poets and academicians. (Ron Silliman recalls, “I knew people were taking him seriously when, over five years ago, the MacArthur Foundation called to ask me if I thought he was a genius.”) Goldsmith teaches at the University of Pennsylvania; he edited I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, which was the basis for an opera that premiered in March 2007. When I first met him four years ago he wasn’t wearing any shoes. The following is a transcript of a recording from last January when I sat down with him at his Manhattan home and asked him some questions (originally published in an undated issue of The Prattler circa February 2008).

Lonely Christopher: Why do you think writing is such a conservative form?

Kenneth Goldsmith: Because language is the means through which we communicate with each other. If we disrupt that communication flow then chances are, according to the conservative idea, we can never understand each other. And if we can never understand each other, in the type of way we’re speaking right now, we can’t get anywhere. Most likely we can’t do anything. We can’t make business together, for example, if we don’t have a common language. It’s very sacred to a lot of people so they get very threatened by rupture in language.

LC: You have said you no longer think of yourself as a poet or writer but as a word processor. You have also said that creativity is bankrupt. I can’t really decide whether those are pessimistic or optimistic statements, or both, but they sort of scare and excite me. Yet maybe there’s also something restrictive or tyrannical in declaring the death of creativity. What do you think about these reactions?

KG: It’s not really meant to be a provocation; it’s simply an explanation of where we happen to be at this particular time. We spend our time processing language these days. We spend our time processing everything these days. Writing needs to respond to the new environment of the web, which is all about information management. If it’s not responding to that particular situation it cannot be called contemporary.

LC: So do you think that responding to situations presented by the Internet is one of the main concerns of your work?

KG: Very much so, yeah. It’s changed the whole game, hasn’t it? Most writers, of course, don’t want to deal with it. They pretend the Internet never happened.

LC: What does sculpture mean to you and why did you quit it?

KG: I’m not sure how to answer the first part of that question.

LC: That’s the part of the question I’m more interested in.

KG: Oh, is it? Okay. In a city like this, sculpture is impractical. I came to New York as a sculptor. In a city where space and transport is at a premium I couldn’t function the way I could when I was in school when I had unlimited studio space and I could make these enormous things and show them in these big spaces and store them in another place. You come to New York and everything has to change. I think writing is the perfect solution. A sculptural approach to writing is really great. You can actually carve words, be very physical with words, and you can do it all on a laptop in a studio apartment. I think the best way to be a sculptor is to work on the computer.

LC: How do you address the materiality of the word?

KG: Words are really great. They can take any form you pour them into. If you want to make it material you can output it in a thousand different ways. You could make those words into cast iron, you could paint them, you could make dresses out of them... it never ends. On the web you can realize it materially in all other ways, the ways we were talking about with Flash or with programming. That’s the beauty of language. You can’t do that with paint. It’s much more malleable than paint. It’s a great medium.

LC: What is it about Andy Warhol that you admire?

KG: There’s nothing about Andy Warhol that I don’t admire. I think in terms of a writer the thing that struck me the most was Warhol’s sense of the contemporary; he really embraced the contemporary. And it wasn’t always pretty, but he knew he had to be of his moment. As a result, because of being such a part of his moment, he became a part of the culture and now he’s as relevant or maybe even more relevant than he was when he was alive. So I must admire his contemporariness.

LC: How does that work? When I first started thinking about Warhol I was thinking about him actually in relation to the Situationists because I was studying the Situationists and I saw that they wanted to affect change but they designed their movement in a way where all their ideas were easily colonized and they really quickly failed. That failure made me think of Warhol because he seemed to have designed his work and life in a way where whatever the position it was put in it still retained its integrity.

KG: You’re very astute; that’s a great point. But the real thing is that the secret of Warhol was he never intended resistance and therefore something that could never offer resistance could never be co-opted. That’s fucking brilliant. He was completely complicit and by being complicit he was subversive. It was a very brilliant strategy of his. He took a lot of shit for it, too. People didn’t understand.

LC: Can you tell me about the Warhol opera? I know very little about it.

KG: I did an opera based on the book of Andy Warhol interviews I edited that was performed in Geneva by a troupe of six dancers, a dozen musicians, and a bunch of opera singers. It was all chopped up text from the words of Andy Warhol.

LC: What’s the purpose of turning Warhol’s interviews into a libretto? That seems like a “creative” act in contradistinction to both your own ideas about writing and maybe even certain perceptions about the intentions of Warhol’s work.

KG: But this book was a very different type of a book: it was an art historical book, it was a different type of a project. Had this been my project I would have gathered the Andy Warhol interviews and put my name on them (simply retype them and not attribute them to Andy Warhol).

LC: What do you think about the interview as a form?

KG: That’s why that interview book with Warhol was so interesting. Because, like everything Warhol touched, it became a new way of making art for him. Warhol would do a completely untraditional interview and he would end up asking the interviewer more questions than the interviewer could ask him so by the end of the interview you found out nothing about Warhol but you found everything out about the guy who was interviewing him. He was a mirror: you just see yourself in it. He would never show you what he was.

LC: What does plagiarism mean to you?

KG: It’s a fabulous way to write. It’s a writing technique to me.

LC: What do you teach your students?

KG: I teach them plagiarism. I teach them uncreative writing. I teach them how to steal, how to appropriate, how to falsify papers, how to buy papers and call them their own. Anything that’s not allowed. We explore in the classroom and my students are penalized for showing creativity or originality.

LC: What do you think of creative writing workshops and of formalism?

KG: I think they are shit. I mean they’re bullshit. It’s fine for another time but it’s not contemporary. It has absolutely nothing to do with the world we live in right now. It’s high school stuff.

LC: Why do you think creative writing programs have become so popular?

KG: I have no idea. I have no idea why anybody would be interested in that approach. Maybe they want to go to Hollywood and write screenplays, but if you write screenplays all you’re doing is plagiarizing other screenplays and other stories anyway. They’re doing what I’m saying writing should be doing, but they’re not admitting it. Nothing’s original in Hollywood. If you made something original in Hollywood it would never get made. You have to remake the same story over and over again. But of course they can’t admit it.

LC: Can you talk about your ideas of process in relation to art and writing?

KG: Unlike painting (where the artist has to stretch a canvas, prime it, make the thing stand up) writing is a different process but I think it’s an equally intense and important process. Like you were talking about with your work: sort of building a structure, hanging the language onto it, and then letting the structure fall away. I’m a bit of a Structuralist. I’m interested in Oulipian constraints, but then in the end kind of kicking the thing away and letting it stand, like you. Very interesting.

LC: You say that people don’t have to read your books as long as they understand the ideas -- but to me, thinking about a concept of one of your books and engaging with one of them in practice (by actually reading it) are different experiences. To me the effort of reading your books, which are boring texts in a way, provides a fuller experience and a sharper understanding of what it is you are accomplishing. Why do you often suggest that reading your books is unnecessary?

KG: We let them off the hook. Text works on so many levels. There’s the level of language that we’re speaking right now, which is transparent: the language doesn’t exist; only the ideas are jumping from my mouth to your mind and from your mouth to my mind. Or else we could have a you know we could start ehh blep ek app whhwhat am I try um ep uh ahh you juhh ah start to uh hhhheh wait, you know, then suddenly we begin to think of language not as transparent but actually as physical matter. That’s the beauty of language: there’s no one way to understand it, there’s no one way to engage with it. I say you don’t have to engage with it, but I don’t say you’re not permitted to either. I think there’s another experience to be had; it’s not one many people are going to want to do, and that’s okay, that doesn’t really bother me. But I like the multi-tonality of these books. They provide a different experience to think about it and a difference experience to read it. Most books, if you don’t read it you don’t get it.

LC: I’ve heard you sometimes use languages you are not familiar with. Can you talk about that?

KG: When I first started writing I was extremely formal and I realized that by inventing a formal system you could subvert the normative uses of your native language. I was at Whole Foods yesterday and I was talking to the bagger and I had all these groceries and I said, “I’d like you to bag everything by shape or color this time, so put everything that’s red in one bag and everything that’s round in another bag.” So you have an extremely different interaction with what’s most familiar if you begin to apply a different type of structural system to it. So in that way I was able to de-familiarize my own language. I was able to actually work with English in a way where I didn’t understand English even though I understood every word. It was really interesting, organizing things by shape and color instead of by what goes in a bag together naturally. And so I figured if I could do that with my own language then I could do it with any language. And so I began using languages that weren’t mine and organizing them formally (creating a formal device by which the language would fall into place). And I was able to write in any language I wanted.

LC: How do you see groups of artists being configured now compared to earlier when New York had seemingly more vital communities predicated on geography? I feel like, to some extent, student communities that form around schools are incidental and the artistic environment of the city thirty or forty years ago that I tend to idealize has basically been erased or mostly paved over. What does the Internet have to do with this paradigmatic change?

KG: The Internet has rendered geography basically obsolete. Everybody’s scattered everywhere. Thank god there’s the Internet; without it then we’d really have a problem finding each other. I think communities are really, really thriving all over the web and all over the world, but it’s a very different configuration from being in SoHo and going out at night and everybody having a beer together. It’s completely different, but very strong. My best peers are scattered around Europe and all over Canada. And I go there, I’m invited to read and to teach there, and we see each other, and it’s great to meet these people and be in touch, and then they come through New York, and we do see each other, there’s a lot of physical contact, but oftentimes some of the closest people I’m involved with I’ve never ever met. I think that the whole thing has been completely realigned. I think it’s better, though. I think we have tighter communities now than we did before when it was geographically based.

Related Resources

•Kenneth’s page at The Electronic Poetry Center
•Audio and video from the Conceptual Poetry Conference on the Poetry Foundation website
•The documentary Sucking on Words
The Anthology of Conceptual Writing edited by Craig Dworkin
Traffic on the The Eclipse Archive
•Interview with Andy Warhol

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Visit Our Website, Visit Our Website, Visit Our Website

In an attempt to overcome a neurotic fear and distrust of technology, and to embrace the futuristic model of e-commerce, Sweeney purchased a domain, or whatever one does to buy notional online real estate, with plans to establish a website to represent our press with the grammar of the 21st Century. Subsequently we learned that it did not require a hired design team we couldn’t afford to build a website that reflected the same minimal aesthetic demonstrated by our journal (though we remain technophobes incapable of proficiently understanding the simplest interface). So we made a website, we did that. Look at it’s pretty name:

(Right now we can’t figure out how to make it so we can visit it without typing the triad of ws before it, so keep that in mind.) While it will supplement instead of usurp this our neglected and unvisited blog, there are several features available there and not here that we think are nice additions and might prove worthy of investigation by interested parties (web parties, in this instance). Firstly, and this is one small step for mankind but really big-seeming to us, we are now able to receive orders for Correspondence through PayPal at our store (which will contain but one item for a while, obviously). Also something we’re working on constructing is the Author Catalog that will include pages for individual writers involved with the press containing online archives for both fans and scholars (students writing their theses on Robert Snyderman will now have improved reference materials). Now it has been announced; we hope there is some interest.