> classes > experimental writing, fall 2023

Experimental Writing
MIT · Fall 2023

This tentative/draft syllabus updated September 4, 2023. Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here.

Instructor: Nick Montfort,, 14N-336
Class meets in 1-375, Tuesdays 2pm–5pm
Office hours: 12:30pm–1:30pm Tuesdays 14E-316
Beginning 9/19, except 10/10 (student holiday) & 11/21 (out of country)
And by appointment

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.

This semester we will have a particular focus on how experimental writing deals with gender and intersecting issues including sexuality, race, and indigeneity. These issues have been considered in previous offerings of the subject, but our investigation of them will be made more explicit and central this semester. For instance, of the three books we study (all of which are works of experimental writing), two explicity address gender as a central issue, while race is important in the third.

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


Learning Objectives

  1. Develop a repertoire of writing techniques that include constrained and procedural writing, both at the level of process and in terms of what is written.
  2. Relate the motivations and concerns of different avant-garde literary/art movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries to the writing techniques they developed and embraced.
  3. Determine how commonalities between many avant-garde movements, including the publication of manifestos and maintaining formal lists of members, relate to your personal writing practice today.
  4. Discover and exploit new ways of writing about particular topics (including personal, cultural, and imaginative ones) by starting with language and process rather than with a theme or subject.
  5. Learn to read deeply and to productively overread, bringing apophenia and imagination to a text so that you can make something new of it and potentially use it as a basis for a project of yours.


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 as we undertake 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 one or more 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 not cover everything else that is listed; we will almost certainly get some exposure to several other works not on the list.

Typical Class Meeting

This is a creative writing workshop course with a significant amount of text to be read (and overread). Although the schedule will vary somewhat from class to class, a typical meeting will involve the following in some order:

0) Before the class meeting, participants will do assigned reading and writing in preparation for class. A few students each day will be assigned to prepare short presentations (no slide decks!) and to be able to answer questions providing historical context for our discussion.

1) Often near the beginning of our class meeting, at 2pm, we’ll “sight read” some experimental writing that is new to us.

2) We’ll react in several ways. We’ll interpret and overinterpret the work, discover and admire particular techniques that were evidently used in their composition, and discuss how these techniques can be extended and used in other ways.

3) We’ll 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) All experimental works we encounter, along with the techniques used to write them, are situated in history. Students will 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.

5) Around 3:20pm we will take a ten-minute break.

6) We’ll have a short in-class writing exercise inspired by the techniques of particular people, literary groups, or movements. We’ll share what we wrote with each other.

7) Discussion of assigned writing work: One or more people will read their work aloud or otherwise present it to the group. It’s important to be respectful, which means more than just being polite: We will try to understand that author’s goals and, in light of those, suggest how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text to improve the work. Initially, will not ask (or allow) the write) 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.

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 those projects. The parameters of each person's final project are to be determined by each participant in the class.

While this will characterize many of the class sessions, some will have more time devoted to discussion of the book-length experimental writing that we will study. In those cases, some of the typical elements will be very abbreviated or omitted.

Required Books

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

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

Woman’s World
Grahm Rawle

Any format (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF or EPUB where available) is acceptable for Sphinx. You should get a printed, ink-on-paper copy of The Matrix if available from a library or at reasonable cost. (Unfortunately, this book, which has important material aspects, is now out of print for the second time.) It is a requirement that you obtain Woman’s World in print. (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 closely, of course, and whatever edition you have, you will need to have that edition with you in class.

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.

Samuel Beckett

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

Alphabetical Africa
Walter Abish

Charles O. Hartman and Hugh Kenner

Emma Kay

Kenneth Goldsmith

Not So Too Much of Much of Everything
NaoKo TakaHashi

Flowers of Bad
David Cameron

Craig Dworkin

Christian Bök
2001 (Upgraded Edition, 2009)

ARK Ronald Johnson
1996 (Republished 2014)

M. Nourbese Philip


Hugo Ball

Kurt Schwitters

Bombardamento di Adrianopoli [Bombardment of Adrianopolis]
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

The Four Horsemen

Ambient Fish
Caroline Bergvall

What the President Will Say and Do
Jaap Blonk


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

Jim Andrews

The Cape
J. R. Carpenter

Kludge: A Meditation
Brian Kim Stefans

Status Update
Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy

Shorter Texts

Lewis Carroll

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
Gertrude Stein

From Finnegans Wake (pages 3–4)
James Joyce

Carnival: the First Panel
Steve McCaffrey

The Situationist International
1968 and surrounding years

From Selected Declarations of Dependence (selected perverbs)
Harry Mathews

Jenny Holzer

Via (48 Dante variations)
Caroline Bergvall

2002: A Palindrome Story
Nick Montfort and William Gillespie

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

Tentative Schedule with Themes

  1. Introduction
  2. Futurism, Introduction to Literary Movements
  3. Dada, Cut-Ups
  4. Visit from Visual Poets, Concrete Poetry, The Matrix Discussion #1
  5. Erasure, Surrealism & Games, The Matrix Discussion #2
  6. ’Pataphysics, Oulipo, Sphinx Discussion #1
  7. Conceptual Writing, Sphinx Discussion #2
  8. Blank Works, Minimal Poetry, Woman’s World Discussion #1
  9. Serial Digital Texts, Woman’s World Discussion #2
  10. Computational Writing, Final Project Workshop
  11. Dedicated Final Project Workshop
  12. Final Readings/Presentations

1 – September 12: 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. Reading: “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” by F. T. Marinetti (found online here, here), pages 3–4 of Finnegans Wake (handed out in class.) 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. If any are added, they will not exceed a few pages per week.

2 – September 19: Futurism, Introduction to Literary Movements

Optional readings related to the clip from The Shining: A review of All Work and No Play..., a video about “hidden text” in the film, and a discussion of the translations of this text.

In-class exercise: “T-word” writing.

Discussion of The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.

Discussion of assignments from last week.

Discussion of Finnegans Wake, pp. 3–4.

In-class exercise: Coin a word.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Revise your “t-word” text. (2) Revise one of your assignments (1, 2 or 3) from the last class, keeping the constraint the same. (3) Revise the same assignment, using a different (and ideally contradictory) constraint/form. (4) Write a “mini” manifesto, using what you did in class as a starting point, if you like, or not, if you don’t like. Don’t write a parody of a manifesto. Think about what could seriously drive you to write in a new way, and express this forcefully in your manifesto. 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 26: Dada, Cut-Ups

We viewed "MANIFESTO (3) (FUTURISM)," and "MANIFESTO (6) (DADA)" from Julian Rosefeldt’s remarkable project Manifesto, a 13-channel video installation. Relevant to our discussion of digital cut-ups, although not mentioned in class: Edde Addad’s charNG and “Alice’s Adventures in the Whale,” generated by Leonard Richardson for National Novel Generation Month.

Presentation of manifestos.

In-class writing: Revisions of 100-word sentences.

Discussion of Finnegans Wake, pp. 3–4.

Assigned brief, informal presentations/explanations for next time, to be done from your seat in the circle: (1) What is concrete poetry? (2) What is visual poetry? (3) What is Umbra? (4) What is a typewriter? (5) What are EECCHHOOEESS & The Mundus? (6) Who was N. H. Pritchard? Just provide a brief, insightful answer in 3–4 minutes.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) What can you define, at least in draft form, as your poetics? That is, why do you write, and what do you consider good writing? No more than 500 words will be fine for this. If your mini-manifesto informs you, fine — but maybe it won’t. (2) Pick one of your assignments 1-4 from the previous class and revise it. Start from scratch (as far as the text itself if concerned) if you prefer. Take each aspect seriously, so when you write a good 100-word sentence, write a sentence that is really good, an example you’d be proud to show off. When you write a T-word story, write a compelling, interesting story. When you use an existing constraint or framework, use it really well and do something that exceeds the original. (3) Choose a text, cut it up, and reassemble it, following the cut-up method. (4) Choose another text. Using this text and a copy of your original one from assignment 4, perform the cut-up procedure again. Reading: All of The Matrix. This is a complete book that will challenge you. Many of the pages have little text on them. 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.

4 – October 3: Visit from Visual Poets, Concrete Poetry, The Matrix Discussion #1

We will hear from Qianxun Chen and Mariana Roa Oliva about their recent book Seedlings_: Walk in Time.

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

Students to deliver informal & informative explanations.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write three concrete (not shape, etc.) 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 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: Review the catalog to Under Erasure exhibit. Downloadable as a PDF from the link. “The Aesthetics of Erasure.” Online project The Deletionist. 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. Revisit the poems in The Matrix that you found most compelling and at least look over the whole book.

NO CLASS October 10, student holiday

5 – October 17Erasure, Surrealism & Games, The Matrix Discussion #2

We may look at these or other erasure poems in class.

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. (4) Write a personal statement of your own poetics (not a “hard-edged” manifesto.) You should base this on work you have already done. (5) Write a manifesto (not a “soft” personal statement.) You should base this on work you have already done. Reading: Sphinx, the whole novel. Read it closely. Be able to explain what happens in it, who the characters are, where exactly 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.

Important to the next class discussion: Table of Forms, by William Gillespie. As a backup, a link to an (Internet Archive) copy of Table of Forms. You do not need to read all of it. Understand the framework and check out some examples.

6 – October 24: ’Pataphysics, Oulipo, Sphinx Discussion #1

In class: Compose 20 consonant poems, as seen on William Gillespie’s (backup link at the Internet Archive).

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Do a univocalic “translation” of a short text. (2) Write a 20-consonant poem (just going through the consonants once). You may revise the one you drafted in class. (3) 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. (4) Write something in a (new) form of your choosing from Table of Forms (5) 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. (6) Select any previous writing of yours for this class and revise it without changing process, form, constraint. You can change anything else. Readings: Review William Gillespie's Table of Forms. I don’t expect you to read the whole book/site. You should study it and understand how several different sorts of forms are used in composing poems.

Begin discussion of Sphinx, which you are to have completely read and which happens to be by a member of the Oulipo. During the next two weeks, you will go back to read over the passages your fellow students have brought up and to investigate aspects of the novel you learned about during discussion today.

7 – October 31: Blank Works, Minimal Poetry, Sphinx Discussion #2

In class: Discuss several poems and works. Attentively watch and listen to John Cage’s 4'33" performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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) Complete a “probe” — an exploration of what may become your final project, of at least one page and no more than three pages in length. Reading: All of Woman’s World. Complete a close reading 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.

8 – November 7: Conceptual and Computational Writing, Woman’s World Discussion #1

In-class reading: Jordan Abel’s “Empty Spaces,” online excerpt. Also, at least glance at The Techno-Optimist Manifesto, a freshly-minted manifesto.

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 7 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) Send me an email briefly proposing the material format for your final project. (3) 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 — read the text of the poem closely. Review (or if necessary finish) Woman’s World.

9 – November 14: Serial Digital Texts Woman’s World Discussion #2

Together we’ll hear something that begins with an unusual sort of translation, Canto I.

Digital works shown/read in class today: Unicode, Jörg Piringer; Star Wars, One Letter at a Time, Brian Kim Stefans; DAKOTA, Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

Due next class ... Writing: Complete a second probe of at least one page, trying out an idea which may lead to your final project. Do not write about your idea. Do the type of writing that you are considering. Reading: Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “@Tubman’s_Rock.”

NO CLASS November 21

I will be available by Zoom from the beginning of my regular Tuesday office hours (12:30pm) until the end of class time (5pm), no appointment needed.

10 – November 28: Computational Writing

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. I’d originally asked that you modify text-generating computer programs, but we did a bit of this already, and I’d prefer you work on your final projects, so I’ve pared away that part of the assignment.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write (again) a manifesto that you believe in, a call to action that declares “We will...” write in a certain way (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 believe 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) Most of your time should be spent on final project work. As you devote yourself to this and part 2 of the assignment, ask yourself: Are you adhering to your manifesto?

11 – December 5: Dedicated 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.

For next class, in addition to your final project, write a statement of no more than 250 words explaining who you are as a writer. It should just be about you — no need to write a manifesto. It should explain your writing practice truthfully; if you don’t feel that experimental writing is your thing, for instance, don’t declare yourself an experimental writer.

12 – December 12: Final Project Presentations / Celebrations

If possible and acceptable to the group, we will have some others in to photograph and help share 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 Experimental (and other 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 interested, 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 language, 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 and register with the online scheduler to make appointments through 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 production 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: 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:

Laptop/Device Best Practices. You should have your computers/tablets/phones at the ready for when we (as a class) come up with a question that can be answered using cybernetic enhancement. 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 keep your digital devices closed/face down until we determine that one or more of us will consult a resource. I may ask that we write together using a shared text editor; I'll provide some advance warning if this is in the plans.