Instructor: Nick Montfort, firstname.lastname@example.org,
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.
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.
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.
1986 (English translation by Emma Ramadan, 2015)
The Matrix, Poems: 1960-1970
N. H. Pritchard
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.
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.
Cent mille milliards de poémes [Hundred
Thousand Billion Poems]
Charles O. Hartman and Hugh Kenner
Not So Too Much of Much of Everything
Flowers of Bad
2001 (Upgraded Edition, 2009)
1996 (Republished 2014)
M. Nourbese Philip
Bombardamento di Adrianopoli [Bombardment of Adrianopolis]
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
The Four Horsemen
What the President Will Say and Do
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.
J. R. Carpenter
Kludge: A Meditation
Brian Kim Stefans
Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy
Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
From Finnegans Wake (pages 3–4)
Carnival: the First Panel
The Situationist International
1968 and surrounding years
From Selected Declarations of Dependence (selected
Via (48 Dante variations)
2002: A Palindrome Story
Nick Montfort and William Gillespie
From Drawn Inward (part I, palindrome poems)
2003 / New Edition 2016
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.
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.
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) Why is there FuturISM ... SurrealISM ... '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 be ready to be asked about this (you may be the first one!) in class. (3) 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. 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. You will be supplied with additional concrete and visual poetry readings.
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.
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. 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.
In class: Compose 20 consonant poems, as seen on William Gillespie’s WordWork.org (via 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 revised 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.
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 “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. Carefully, attentively watch and listen to a performance of John Cage’s 4:33.
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. Review Woman’s World.
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.”
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).
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) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.