nickm.com > classes > experimental writing, fall 2021

21W.750

Experimental Writing

Instructor: Nick Montfort, in@mkcinckm.com, 14N-336
Class meets in 14N-325 Tuesday, 2pm–5pm
Office hours: Regular office hours are 10am–11am Wednesdays in 14N-336, with some exceptions and a possible change of room during the semester
I am also available, via videoconference, by appointment

Posted Sep 7, 2021. Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here.

Our overall calendar, and specific writing assignments, are TENTATIVE and may be changed. What follows is, however, a reasonable guide to the amount of work you will need to do in this class.

Students use innovative compositional techniques to write extraordinary texts, focusing on new writing methods rather than on traditional lyrical or narrative concerns. Writing experiments, conducted individually, collaboratively and during class meetings, culminate in chapbook-sized projects. Students read, listen to, and create different types of work, including sound poetry, cut-ups, constrained and Oulipian writing, uncreative writing, sticker literature, false translations, artists’ books, and digital projects.

Typical Class Meeting - Assessment - Schedule - Contests & Publications Further Info

Syllabus

Typical Class Meeting

This is a creative writing workshop course. Although the schedule will vary somewhat from class to class, a typical meeting will involve the following in some order:

0) Participants will do assigned reading and writing in preparation for class.

1) Often near the beginning of our class meeting, at 2pm, one or more published/disseminated pieces (“other people’s experimental writing”) will be read aloud or otherwise presented by a workshop participant. This will usually be our first experience of this work.

2) We will react, discuss the pieces we have heard, discover and admire particular techniques that were evidently used in their composition, and wonder aloud about how these techniques can be extended and used in other ways. This is “theoretical writing” rather than “experimental writing,” but it’s done in support of experimental writing undertaken during the course.

3) We will extend our discussion to cover the assigned reading. How can the works we just encountered change the way we read? Challenge conventional notions of writing? Make us rethink forms, English, and the subjects and themes of the piece? Would it make us think differently if we wrote in this way?

4) The experimental works we encounter and the techniques used to write them are situated in history. Students will be assigned to give short presentations at this point in the class meeting to provide historical, political, and cultural context. Note that these presentations come after we have had a chance to give an immediate reaction to experimental writing work, and to let the writing provoke us in its our own context today.

4) Around 3:20pm we will take a fifteen-minute break. (This break time has been extended from previous offerings because of the need to wear face covering, and the need for relief from that.)

5) Often when we reconvene, we will have a short in-class writing exercise inspired by the techniques of particular people, literary groups, or movements. When we do, will share what we wrote with each other.

6) We will discuss the exercise — not just the outcomes of it, but also the structure and setup of the activity itself, and how that facilitated or inhibited new types of writing.

7) Discussion of assigned writing work: One or more people will read their work aloud or otherwise present it to the group. We will be as respectful as if the work offered to us in this way were our own writing. We will sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text to improve the work. Initially, will not ask (or allow) the writer to interpret or explain what is being expressed in their text, because we want to focus on the work and not any explanation of it. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer, the text, and any purposes behind the writing of it, and will not resort to either euphemism or brutality.

8) Initially, specific short writing assignments will be given that will be due the following week. Later in the semester, participants will develop concepts for their main projects and will do weekly work on that projects. The parameters of each person's final project is to be determined by each participant in the class.

Assessment

30% - Preparation for and participation in class. This includes the physical presence of your material being in the classroom; reading aloud or otherwise presenting the experimental writing you have done and that done by others; giving short presentations about the historical, cultural, social, and national contexts of different avant-garde movements; engaging in discussion that is informed by having completed the assigned reading; and doing writing during our in-class writing exercises. Missing a class, with an unexcused absence, will reduce your overall grade by 10%, which will lower your final grade by one letter grade. (Absences for circumstances out of your control, such as health problems and family emergencies, are excused, as are absences for religious observance; you still will have to keep up in the course, so contact me and other students to be able do so if you have an excused absence.) Presence and lack of participation (for instance, due to being unprepared) may result in up to a 5% reduction for each class.

30% - Completion of the short week-to-week writing assignments in a way that shows an understanding of the constraint, prompt, or concept and which works toward some innovation. Each of the assignments will be valued equally.

40% - The main project. The framework for the project (form, concept, material) should be innovative and appropriate to the author’s goals. The scope should be suitable for a project that is the culmination of a semester of writing work. The writing should be innovative. Some aspect of the project should be awesome.

The lists of books, sound pieces, digital works, and shorter texts are provided to give a sense of what we will read and experience in the course. The required books will be discussed in detail and will serve to prompt our writing. We will probably not cover everything else that is listed; we will almost certainly cover several other works not on the list.

Required Books

A Void (La Disparation)
George Perec
1969 (English translation by Gilbert Adair, 1995)

The Matrix, Poems: 1960-1970
N. H. Pritchard
1970

Sphinx
Anne Garréta
1986 (English translation by Emma Ramadan, 2015)

Any format (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF or EPUB where available) is acceptable for A Void and Sphinx, but you are required to get a printed, ink-on-paper book edition of The Matrix. This will almost certainly be the new paperback edition from Primary Information. (You can check it out from a library if that’s possible, but you need to have a copy and bring it to class.) You should read each of these, of course, and whatever edition you have of the other two books, you will need to have those books with you in class, too.

Other Books

Some of these books are out of print or have been printed in limited editions. Should we study material from them, it will be made available. For instance, in some cases, books will be shown and handed around in class. As many of these books as possible are in the collection of the MIT Libraries. They may also be made available for you to read in my office during office hours or by appointment.

Many of these are not books to be read completely. We will consider them in different ways, perhaps requiring different sorts of reading strategies that involve understanding a framework or concept, experiencing some of the texture of the work, but not always reading the text cover to cover.

Watt
Samuel Beckett
1953

Cent mille milliards de poémes [Hundred Thousand Billion Poems]
Raymond Queneau
1961

Alphabetical Africa
Walter Abish
1974

Sentences
Charles O. Hartman and Hugh Kenner
1995

Worldview
Emma Kay
1999

Day
Kenneth Goldsmith
2003

Not So Too Much of Much of Everything
NaoKo TakaHashi
2007

Flowers of Bad
David Cameron
2007

Parse
Craig Dworkin
2008

Eunoia
Christian Bök
2001 (Upgraded Edition, 2009)

ARK Ronald Johnson
1996 (Republished 2014)

Zong!
M. Nourbese Philip
2011

Sound

Karawane
Hugo Ball
1916

Ursonate
Kurt Schwitters
1922-1932

Bombardamento di Adrianopoli [Bombardment of Adrianopolis]
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
1926

Mayakovsky
The Four Horsemen
1977

Ambient Fish
Caroline Bergvall
1998

What the President Will Say and Do
Jaap Blonk
2006

Digital

Just a few samples that tie into other discussions and threads in this course. I teach another subect, 21W.764J/CMS.609J/CMS.844 The Word Made Digital, which is essentially all about digital exprimental writing.

NIO
Jim Andrews
2001

The Cape
J. R. Carpenter
2005

Kludge: A Meditation
Brian Kim Stefans
2006

Status Update
Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy
2009

Shorter Texts

Jabberwocky
Lewis Carroll
1872

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
Gertrude Stein
1938

From Finnegans Wake (pages 1 and 2)
James Joyce
1939

Carnival: the First Panel
Steve McCaffrey
1967-1970

[Slogans]
The Situationist International
1968 and surrounding years

From Selected Declarations of Dependence (selected perverbs)
Harry Mathews
1977

Truisms
Jenny Holzer
1977-

Via (48 Dante variations)
Caroline Bergvall
2000

2002: A Palindrome Story
Nick Montfort and William Gillespie
2001

From Drawn Inward (part I, palindrome poems)
Mike Maguire
2003 / New Edition 2016

Tentative Schedule with Themes

  1. Introduction
  2. ’Pataphysics, Futurism
  3. Dada, Cut-Ups
  4. Surrealism, Games
  5. Oulipo, the Situationist International
  6. Computational Writing, Sphinx Discussion #1
  7. Conceptual Writing, Sphinx Discussion #2
  8. Concrete & Visual Poetry, The Matrix Discussion #1
  9. Erasure, The Matrix Discussion #2
  10. Blank Works, Minimal Poetry, A Void Discussion #1
  11. Serial Digital Texts, A Void Discussion #2
  12. Dedicated Final Project Workshop
  13. Final Readings/Presentations

1 September 14: Introduction, short experimental texts, discussion of class format

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write a good sentence of exactly 100 words. (2) Choose a writing process, constraint, or form inspired by one of the readings I presented and, using it, write something of no more than one page. Do not repeat one of our in-class exercises; choose some process/constraint/form than we didn’t already use together. (3) Choose another writing process, constraint, or form (again, one that has not yet been used) based on one of the readings and, using it, write something of no more than one page. (4) Revise one of your “t-word” exercises from the first class. Reading: “An Introduction to ’Pataphysics.” “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” by F. T. Marinetti (also found online here, here). Other short experimental writing works may be assigned for reading this week or at any point along the way. Any additional readings required for the following week's class will be added before midnight of the current class day. They will not exceed a few pages per week.

2 September 21: ’Pataphysics, Futurism

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Cut up (literally, with a cutting instrument such as a pair of scissors or a paper knife) three printed texts into three piles of snippets. (2) Assemble three poems (or other short texts), each one using snippets from a different pile, and photograph them. (3) Replace the snippets, choose two piles to combine, draw a poem from that combined pile, and scan or photograph it. Print the results; you have four poems to turn in. (4) Create a digital cut-up using only a computer and its text manipulation capabilities. You will need to decide how to “cut” and what that means. Reading: “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” by William Burroughs. “Dada Manifesto” by Hugo Ball, Zurich, July 14, 1916. “Dada Manifesto” by Tristan Tzara, Paris, January 12, 1921.

3 September 28: Dada, Cut-Ups

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Play several rounds of Question & Answer with friends. Bring what you believe to be the best results (at least 3) to class. (2) Invent a reasonably simple writing game similar to Exquisite Corpse, Question & Answer, and Syllogism. (3) Try the game you invented with friends and bring what you consider the best results. Also, a short critical/historical assignment: (4) Why is there FuturISM ... SurrealISM ... sometimes DadaISM ... but just ... 'Patahpysics (not 'Pataphysicism) ... The Oulipo (not Oulipism) ... and only sometimes Dadaism (mostly just Dada)? Inform yourself a bit more about these movements with some research — we have touched on them all with readings up to the current readings, and have had class discussion of almost all of them — and write or type a short answer (no more than 250 words!) to hand in on paper. Reading: Selections from the Oulipo. Note that you are not required to read all of Queneau’s sonnets, since it cannot be done within a lifetime.

4 October 5 - Surrealism, Games

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Bring an unusual, innovative text to class that fascinates you (something “experimental,” 1 page, copies for everyone in class) (2) Bring a short text or meaningful excerpt from a text that you love (does not have to be “experimental,” 1 page, copies for everyone in class) (3) Do a univocalic “translation” of a short text. (4) Write a 20-consonant poem (just going through the consonants once). You may revised the one you drafted in class. (5) Go to extremes; specifically, rework a previous assignment or idea, from in class or between classes, while changing one aspect of it to be the opposite (according to you) of what it was. Reading: Read at least the first third of A Void. Our discussion of it will take place near the end of the semester, but it is a challenging and allusive book and we will take some questions on it beforehand.

5 October 12: Oulipo, the Situationist International

Important to class discussion: Table of Forms, by William Gillespie. As a backup, a link to an (Internet Archive) copy of Table of Forms.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write an email to a fellow student about that student's work in class, cc:ing me. (2) Write something in a form of your choosing from Table of Forms (3) Select any previous writing of yours for this class and revise it at the level of process, form, or constraint. That is, choose a different writing framework or overall technique and rewrite using that. (4) Select any previous writing of yours for this class and revise it without changing process, form, constraint. You can change anything else. (5) Fire a probe: That is, begin an experiment or exploration by actually doing some writing. In a single page, explore some process, constraint, etc. you may use in your final project. Readings: Review William Gillespie's Table of Forms. I don’t expect you to read the whole book/site, but you should study it and understand how several different sorts of forms are used in composing poems.

Read Sphinx closely and be able to explain what happens in it, who the characters are, where it is set — all the traditional aspects of narrative. Take note of which aspects of the book you find most impressive, affecting, and/or conceptually resonant, indicating passages you would like to discuss in class.

6 October 19: Computational Writing, Sphinx Discussion #1

Resources for today's assignment: For computer-generated novels, the NaNoGenMo official site (rather spare). See also also specific articles and best-of lists, including ones from The Verge, Boing Boing, and Liza Daly. To find modifiable text-generating computer programs that are fairly simple, check out Memory Slam or use any of my programs on nickm.com (check out the projects listed down the left side).

We will begin our discussion of Sphinx, which you are to have completely read. During the next week, you will go back to read over the passages your fellow students have brought up and to investigate aspects of the novel you leard about during discussion today.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write in another form of your choosing from Table of Forms (2) Develop your own form (one that can concisely stated and quickly understood) and write a piece of about a page in that form (3) Read a computer-generated book (in whatever way that “reading” satisfies you), write a short description (no more than 500 words) of how you beleive it was generated, make some observation about what is interesting to you about this book, and send your description to all of us via email. (4) Develop a short computer-generated text, by writing a stand-alone program or by using some other method. Modification of a Memory Slam program is a fine way to work. Reading: Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “@Tubman’s_Rock.”

7 October 26: Conceptual Writing, Sphinx Discussion #2

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Create a conceptual and/or computer-generated leaflet or chapbook, using one letter-size sheet of paper. I suggest a small amount of code, too, but am not giving you a formal limitation, only this material one. This means producing the text and designing and printing this booklet. Bring at least 2 copies and up to 8 copies to class, to facilitate our discussion of your booklet, so you and I can both have a copy, and in case you would like to offer your booklet to other students, perhaps in trade for theirs. (2) Complete a second “probe” — another one-page exploration of what may become your final project. This one can be along very similar lines as your first probe, if you were very pleased with the result, or it can be completely different. Reading: Poems by Augusto de Campos, all the ones linked there. Three untitled poems by Haroldo de Campos, linked there. Carnival, the first panel, by Steve McCaffrey. You will be supplied with additional concrete and visual poetry readings.

Read The Matrix closely.

8 November 2: Concrete & Visual Poetry, The Matrix Discussion #1

In addition to assigned readings, class discussion/in-class reading will include: sau aus usa by Hansjörg Mayer, Bebe Coca-Cola by Décio Pignatari.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write three concrete/visual poems that are each different sorts of experiments. That is, do not develop any “style” or make a systematic set of three poems. Try different things. (2) Find a concrete/visual poem, or something that you read as one, somewhere — an anthology, a Tumblr, a magazine advertisement — and bring it to class, printed out, along with an idea of why you find it interesting. Reading: Catalog to Under Erasure exhibit. Downloadable as a PDF from the link. “The Aesthetics of Erasure.” Online project The Deletionist.

As with Sphinx, you should return to The Matrix, investigating what you learned from our class discussion. In the case of The Matrix I expect you to read the whole book again. You should also “pre-read” A Void in preparation for a full, close reading of it next week. I’ll describe what I mean by this in class.

9 November 9: Erasure, The Matrix Discussion #2

A small selection of books written by erasure:

Complete a close reading of A Void, such that you are able to describe its plot, characters, setting, etc. and discuss how the major incident in the text, and its overall themes, relate to its constraint.

Due next class ... Writing: Write a page-long text using some erasure technique. Reading: Carefully, attentively watch and listen to this performance of John Cage’s 4:33.

10 November 16: Blank Works, Minimal Poetry, A Void Discussion #1

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Produce a blank/uninscribed work and bring it to the next class. (2) Write a minimal poem — just one — and bring it to the next class. (3) Send me an email briefly proposing the material format for your final project. (4) Bring some writing toward your final project — no more than a page; one copy is fine, although we may share and discuss such work. Choose one of “the hard parts” if the project you are imagining has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others. Ideally, bring a complete draft of your project. Reading: Canto I by Ezra Pound — listen to the short podcast and partial reading by Forrest Gander, in addition to reading the text of the poem closely. We will view serial digital texts together in class; no need to read them on your own first.

11 November 23: Serial Digital Texts, A Void Discussion #2

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Produce a Web page that will eventually serve as documentation of your project. It will have, at this point, a description of your project. By the completion of class it may have a photograph (if your project is in print form, for instance) or may have the entire interactive or non-interactive text (if your project is digital). Put this Web page online and send me the URL. (2) Continue to develop and revise your project as you have each week.

12 November 30: Final Project Workshop

This will be our final opportunity for hearing from each other about our ongoing final project work, and the final chance to ask each other for responses and suggestions. We will have time to do so in some detail.

13 December 7: Final Project Presentations / Celebrations

If possible and acceptable to the group, we will have others outside our class in attendance to enjoy and be provoked by the work you have done. Each student will present their project in a way they find suitable: A reading, screening, performance, etc. Students focus on sharing and presenting the project itself, rather than mainly talking about it.

Where You Can Submit Creative Writing

You do not have to submit your work to contests or publications to learn about writing or to be a writer. For those who are interesed, I am listing opportunities related to MIT where you can submit work that could be relevant to experimental writing somehow. I only include opportunities where there is no cost to submit work. A list will appear below and be filled in during the semester.

Further Information

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the CMS/W Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center (E39-115) and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.

I used a writing technique called appropriation when I ripped off the previous paragraph from another source and included it in this page, without quotation marks around it and without telling you where it came from, as if it were my own writing. For some reason it is considered perfectly ethical to do this on a syllabus for an MIT course. Be mindful that syllabus-writing using standard, required langauge, and experimental writing practices, appropriate in a contemporary poetry context, may not be appropriate for scholarly writing and may not embody academic integrity in a traditional sense. As we will discuss this semester, this does not mean that experimental writers should operate without ethics or integrity. We will not ignore the academic concept of plagiarism in this class; we will understand how appropriating text and, in certain cases, not explicitly stating one’s sources, is a method of conceptualist experimental writing that has a point to it.

The Writing and Communication Center offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts with advanced degrees and publishing experience. The WCC can help you further develop your oral communication skills and learn about all types of academic and professional writing. You can learn more about the WCC consultations at http://cmsw.mit.edu/writing-and-communication-center and register with the online scheduler to make appointments through https://mit.mywconline.com. Please note that appointments at the WCC tend to fill up quickly.

Information Systems & Technology (IS&T). As an enrolled MIT student you can access a variety of proprietary software at no cost, and, given my advocacy, use, and produciton of free software, I’m not going to tell you more about that or link to such things. You should use free/libre/open source software instead. However, IS&T also loans laptops to students: https://ist.mit.edu/loaner-equipment. If you have any technical questions about hardware, software, or anything IT-related, you can contact IS&T 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at: https://ist.mit.edu/help.

Laptop/Device Best Practices. There is no overall, blanket policy in class prohibiting or requiring the use of computers/phones/smart watches/PDAs etc. We augment our intellect in various ways during our class sessions. For the most part, we will be doing so by discussing topics with each other, doing and sharing writing exercises (usually undertaken on paper), and otherwise attending to the people in the classroom community. This requires close attention to me and your fellow students, so the use of digital devices is often in appropriate. However our learning situation may at times require cybernetic enhancement. I may request that one, some, or all students gather information about a topic of discussion by consulting the online Oracle. I may also ask that we write together using a shared text editor; I'll provide some advance warning if this is in the plans. During our class session, it's always appropriate to focus on the class and to fully be part of the classroom community.

Facial covering policy. The instructor will only be removing his close-fitting face covering once, during the first class session, when he will stand at a distance from students and wear a face shield to perform/read several works of experimental writing by way of introducing the course. At all other times all class participants must wear a close-fitting face covering over their noses and mouths.

Perceptive students will notice that the instructor wears a neck gaiter as his facial covering. Although an August 8, 2020 study has been misinterpreted by some, leaing some to beleive that neck gaiters are not a safe face covering during the current pandemic, an August 20, 2020 study by a respected aerosolologist demonstrated their effectiveness, see The New York Times, Yahoo! News, and presentation slides from the researchers.