Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, & Vanessa Place

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women

Les Figues Press

reviewed by Nathan Austin

Conceptual art has often been considered a boys' club, despite the crucial role women have played in its history. Lucy Lippard's 1973 show "c. 7,500" (the title takes its name from the population of Valencia, CA, where the show was held) was intended as a corrective: it included work from 26 women who worked within a movement that took ideas and information as its primary media. I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women serves a similar function, reminding us of the centrality of women to a movement that might sometimes seem masculinist.

The volume, edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place, arrives at an exciting moment — it comes soon after the publication of the monumental Against Expression, and amidst a growing interest in conceptual writing. In fact, conceptual writing seems to be making inroads into more mainstream conversations — and this is something that I'll Drown My Book is at least partially responsible for: it appears on Ms. magazine's list of "2012's Best Books of Poetry by Women," which (correctly) identifies it as a "must-own." Even more surprising is that other books on the list are also (more or less broadly speaking) conceptual in their bents: The Making of Americans by Holly Melgard, which reduces Stein's book of the same name to its non-repeated phrases, and Diana Hamilton's Okay, Okay, which "appropriates other people's feelings," according to its press release.


The range of work included in the volume is impressive. There is a temptation in reviewing I'll Drown My Book to make of the anthology a list of descriptions of the various projects chosen by the editors for inclusion. If such a list would resemble portions of Peli Grietzer's review of Against Expression in the Los Angeles Review of Books, it would also resemble Darren Wershler-Henry's Tapeworm Foundry, a poem that catalogues possible concepts for writing/art projects. Such a list might be structured as lost episodes of the TV show Friends: The One Where Madame Bovary Is Rewritten As A Jackson Mac Low Poem; The One Where The Poet Googles an Anthropological List of Reasons to Have Sex; The One That Erases Heart of Darkness; The Ones Written in the Dark During Lectures and Poetry Readings. Kenneth Goldsmith's claim of conceptual writing — that "what matters is the machine that drives the poem's construction" — might suggest that the reader's direct engagement with the poems themselves is beside the point.

But any serious engagement with conceptual writing recognizes that this is false. Goldsmith proposes a "two-pronged" set of concerns for conceptual work: if the machine — method, process — is "what matters," the resultant poem provides occasion for an encounter with "the raw physicality of language." It's tempting to take this further, to return to Craig Dworkin's early contrast of conceptual writing's "non-expressive mode" against a romantic "spontaneous overflow," and suggest that there's a different kind of spontaneous overflow at work in the materiality of the best kind of conceptual writing: the machine Goldsmith describes produces material that cannot be anticipated in advance or reduced to the fact of its production.


There is, I think, a tendency towards reductive framings of conceptual writing, particularly in accounts that emphasize its uses of this or that methodology, or its rejection of expressive modes. The editors of I'll Drown My Book avoid such simple definitions: conceptual, Laynie Browne notes, "is not a term which can belong to a select few, or be defined to narrowly, at least not at this point in time." Conceptual texts are not limited (not "dictate\[d] or predict\[ed]") by their methodologies; methodology is not even the central characteristic of such writing. Authors include personal statements; this allows the definition(s) of conceptualism to play out over dozens of voices and through dozens of approach.

Similarly, Browne asserts, contra Goldsmith and Dworkin, that conceptual writing "is often expressive and intellectual." Caroline Bergvall extends this, posing a question that troubles assumptions that such writing is strictly and simply impersonal: "How does one put together a text that depersonalizes, that disengages from personalized modes, yet manages to engage with processes of personification and identification?" Kathy Acker's opening to her Great Expectations opens the volume with one answer to this question ("I was unspeakable so I rean into the language of others"). Jennifer Karmin's "Art Is A Concept Art Is A Process: Affirmations For John Baldessari," which rewrites his "I will not make any more boring art" provides another.

Marcella Durand's "Pastoral 2" begins by rewriting Whitman in the voice of Stein, or vice versa; the line in question ("I repeat myself very well then I repeat myself") also appears in a variety of online texts, further troubling and extending the ventriloquism at work here.

The line then extends beyond either Whitman or Stein into an investigation of the relationship between the self and nature; and Durand's commentary seems to invite us to read it as yet a further extension of the mediumistic and appropriative dynamics at play.

(Worthy of more thought than can be afforded here: the number of writers who resist the term under which they have been grouped. As Sharon Mesmer writes, "I fear that by defining what I've been doing for the last 35 years — appropriating diversely sourced material to generate language for prose and poetry — I will inadvertently switch a bare ugly light bulb on the process, thus rendering the occluded interstices which appropriation has allowed me to work within too visible." In a similar vein, Nada Gordon notes: "When I write conceptual poetry, I don't set out to write 'conceptual poetry.'")


The book is positioned as a corrective to the exclusion of women from anthologies and canons. In fact, Browne rejects the term anthology — with its attendant business of exclusion — in favor of assemblage, a term that emphasizes the range of approaches found in the volume. And where the book itself is an attempt to correct or resist the silence of those included, a great many of them attend to other silenced voices. Browne cites M. NourbeSe Philip: "There is no telling this story; it must be told." Her Zong!, excerpted here, attempts the impossible rescue of the voices of history's victims, slaves murdered for insurance money. And there is a similar attention to affording a voice for those excluded by history throughout the collection: a selection from Tina Darragh's Rule of Dumbs includes a "Collective Lament for Banishing Animals from History"; Inger Christensen, in one of the oldest works excerpted, 1981's Alphabet, enumerates an ecology (and the threats it both faces and contains) in a Fibonnacci-derived form; in Darkness, All That / The Remains, Yedda Morrison unearths and problematizes the references to nature found within Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.


Browne's resistance to canon-formation and to stable definition is extended to the book's organization. I'll Drown My Book groups works according to one of four broad approaches to conceptual writing (Process, Structure, Matter, Event). Each of these broad approaches includes a range of more specific methodologies: writers whose work is oriented around Process (the first such grouping) may employ Constraint, Mimicry, Mediation, Translative, or Versioning. It's not always made explicit why a particular work is placed in this or that category, as many could be situated in a variety of camps. In fact, Browne notes that these categories are shot through with instability: the terms employed in these grouping are meant to "encourage inquiry rather than stipulate."

Nevertheless, there are shared concerns throughout, most especially in terms of the work's status as engaged as Bergvall terms it. Browne identifies tendencies towards a collectivity both in the modes of textual production and in the relationship between writer, reader, and a text that often pulls from other sources. There is an impulse towards experiment and investigation, a "desire to reveal something previously obscured." Bergvall identifies in this impulse a political critique, identifying conceptual art — and by extension, writing, one assumes — as "a critical and investigative approach of language, materials, methodologies and socio-cultural situations." This necessitates two approaches, both of which Bergvall calls "engaged disengagement": in the first, it requires rigorous examination of the self as she exists within the contexts of social and cultural spheres of power; in the second, it requires that the writer approach writing as a kind of game that allows her to be positioned both inside and outside, that provides occasion to "shake-up one's expectations."