July 9 2010

Dear Lana Turner,

 

 

For the month of May 2010, Robert Fitterman hosted a storefront facility in New York City’s Bowery district which sold nothing but words.

Rob’s Word Shop was open Tuesday and Thursdays May 5th through May 27th 11am to 2pm selling single letters for 50 cents each and words for 1 dollar a piece.

Potential clients were invited to request letters and words and specify the typeface (typed or handwritten, in printing or cursive) in which they would like those words produced. Fitterman would then create the requested letters, words, phrases and sentences to the clients’ specifications, create an invoice and commercial documentation and complete the sale. All requests and conversations were recorded and all purchases were obsessively detailed—all fodder for a potential book publication. Fitterman also allowed for mail-order requests and posted daily updates on his fledgling company’s success at robswordshop.blogspot.com.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to participate in a venture which stands the traditional writing-publishing model on its head. I

placed an email order for the penultimate sentence from Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which reads “on errands of life these letters speed towards death.” Dutifully sending Fitterman a cheque for $9us I promptly received an envelope containing the requested sentence handwritten horizon- tally across a standard sheet of paper rubberstamped and signed by Fitterman. Accompanying the sentence was an itemized invoice stamped KEEP THIS SLIP FOR YOUR REFERENCE and a typed alternative setting of the samesentence (no charge).

At the novella’s beginning,???Melville’s????eponymous????Bartleby is??a model employee, highly praised by his superiors. Bartleby soon refuses to participate in any of the expected duties of his office and of Capitalist society. Bartleby begins to respond to requests that he execute his role as scrivener (hand-copying business documents) with the phrase “I would prefer not to.” This phrase encapsulates his unwillingness to conform to expectations. This lack of participation soon spreads to all aspects of Bartleby’s life and he eventually dies, preferring not to eat.

I requested that sentence because “Bartleby the Scrivener” has been adopted by conceptual poets as a stylistic forerunner of Conceptual Writing. Conceptual Writing “prefers not to” engage with the expectations of writing as it is traditionally defined. Eschewing traditional formulations of literature, Conceptual Writing, echoing Bartleby, results in works that are unreadable, unsellable, unreviewable, and outside of traditional definitions.

     Fitterman, with Rob’s Word Shop, was a writer who refused to write. He welcomed the position of scrivener, preferring not to express any creativity. Instead of accepting commissions for creative writing, Fitterman merely transcribed words at his customer’s request and charged them for a task they could have easily accomplished without intercession. Ironically, given the sales of poetry (especially that of avant-garde poetry), Fitterman’s Word Shop probably “moved more product” than many poets.

If Rob’s Word Shop is any indication, readers today do not want to purchase poetry; they would rather purchase their own words sold back to them at a profit.

Heimrad Bäcker’s transcript (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010; first published under the title nachschrift in 1986)) is a collection of page after mostly empty page, interrupted by brief, aphoristic (strictly documented) quotations from internal Nazi memoranda, private letters and reports presented in the banal, toneless language of bureaucracy. Bäcker referred to his style as dokumentarische dichtung (documentary poetry) and where he revised the original text, every detail is acknowledged in eerie echo of the precision of the source authors.

Bäcker created transcript (which was published without knowledge of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975). Reznikoff used a similar compositional strategy but drew from survivors’ testimony at the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Both books are bereft of traditionally “poetic” language. Reznikoff’s, however, mines the confessional testimony. His source is inherently the stuff of poetry—prosaic sentences broken with poetic line breaks that testify to traumatic experience. Bäcker rejects the testimony in favour of the corporate, but transcript is as emotionally engaging as any humanist confession. The vast majority of transcript could be excerpted from any obsessively-documented corporation pleading for increased shipments where “the times on the train schedule correspond to the hours of the day 0-24” (28) when “it is very difficult at the moment to keep the liquidation figure at the level maintained up to now” (52).

transcript, as a fore-runner of contemporary conceptual poetry, displays how potent and emotional the corporate can be—and how language simultaneously veil and unveils. Bäcker’s involvement in the Nazi party is implicitly the subject of transcript; his sentence is the Sisyphean task of sifting and resifting banal primary documentation in search of the poetic in the unspeakable.

 

Derek Beaulieu

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