This discussion was conducted via email in Fall 2002. Also available online at and EPC


Leevi Lehto: Charles Bernstein in his essay “Artifice of Absorption” (published here in Finnish translation) fruitfully discusses the relation of poetry to other kinds of writing, foregrounding “artificiality” (speciality) of poetry – “devicehood” and “thickness” of language being some of the terms he uses to characterize the poetic language / poetry as a medium. You, on the other hand, seem to place more emphasis on the “poeticality” of everyday speech?

Kenneth Goldsmith: It’s important to remember that one of Language Poetry’s initial thrusts was from Robert Grenier’s early statement “I hate speech”, which prioritized, in my mind, written, concretized, or “artificial” language over “natural” speech tendencies of previous American generations of poets. But when we examine, say, Ginsberg or O’Hara or Antin’s “natural” speech, we find that it isn’t natural at all. It’s completely artificial language written on the page: it couldn’t be farther from “real” speech.

In Soliloquy, the act of recording every word I spoke for a week was strictly documentary. The act of transcribing those tapes into words rendered actual speech into literature. There was no editing, no enhancing – exactly what appeared on those tapes appeared on the page. But surely, this, is not “natural” or “real” speech either – dozens of “aesthetic” decisions needed to be made in order to create this piece of writing, among them: where do line breaks occur? do I include “um’s” and “uh’s”? where do question marks or exclamation points go? what happens when I can’t understand certain garbled words? and so on. No matter how much Soliloquy might look like “real” speech, it’s every bit constructed a text as Language Poetry, Beat Poetry or the New York School.

Having said that, Soliloquy is as close to a transcription of “real” speech as one can get. And surprisingly, linguistically, it’s an extremely disjunctive book — every bit as disjunctive as, say, Bruce Andrews’ work. It’s eye-opening how garbled, forked and mangled our every day language is if we examine and frame it in a way that the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

I took this process one step further with the series of Uncreative Writings I did from 2000-2001, of which the New York Times transcription piece, Day, is a part of. I wanted to defamiliarize the most common written language, that of the daily newspaper and see what it would turn up. I “retyped” the entire contents of a day’s newspaper (every instance where a word or letter appeared, regardless of whether it was editorial or advertising content). The final manuscript is over 900 pages long and includes everything: the sporting results, the movie timetables, the stock quotes, the classified ads, etc.

Again, like Soliloquy, this project went far beyond the mere transcribing of one text into another. Dozens of different decisions had to be employed even in the simple act of copying. So, again, it is an extremely artificial and contrived text. In this way I’ve come to realize, then, that the simple act of copying any text constitutes a valid way of writing. Moving language from one place to another is a creative act of uncreativity. Hence, one needn’t ever “write” again. Copying becomes a wholly satisfying act in an of itself.

This would apply to the text itself: it’s much more about the wholeness of language, the truth of language, rather than the artifice of fragmentation that is so inherent in much Language writing. It’s something that the new generation is very interested in: How to retain semantic sense (without real fragmentation), yet have the language be as alive and foreign as modernist, post-Cagean writing. This is where the whole argument for appropriation comes in. Suddenly, the familiar or quotidian is made unfamiliar or strange, without really blasting apart the sentences. Forget the New Sentence. The Old Sentence, if framed properly, is really odd enough.

LL: I like the way you put it: “Alive and foreign.” Or as Charles says in his essay: “A poetic reading can be given to any document.” This fruitful tension can be found already in Keats (forgive me this ancient reference: Keats is my household good.), who spoke of poetry’s “fine excess”, then also believed in “everybody’s being a poet”, as in a magnificent letter from February 19, 1818 “Now it appears to me that almost any Man may (…) spin (…) his own airy Citadel”. I gave this idea a contemporary go (if you can say so) by feeding your sentence above “It is an extremely artificial and contrived text” into the Google search box, then pasting the ten first result pages to a Word document, deleting titles, url’s, and spaces between entries, and finally making every “extremely”, “artificial”, and “contrived” to appear on its own line. To me, the resulting poem seems to underline the (essentially?) poetic structure of “everybody’s” web experience (plurivocality, repetitiveness, disjunction.). This might be closer to the New Sentence, but maybe the Old Sentence never was.

KG: Your project gives new meaning to “automatic writing.” I think what you’re doing is on many people’s minds these days. A lot of younger poets are trying to make sense of the vast amount of language available to us through the web. My 1996 book, No. 111, was greatly fed by the web and that’s back when it was all text, using the Lynx browser. I’ve said before that I am no longer a poet or writer, but instead I am a “word processor.” I mean that literally. I think that the new generation of innovative writers are chunking out and crunching vast amounts of text – either through programming or through the sheer will of collecting – and trying to define parameters in which to frame their respective projects. I’m thinking of Brian Kim Stefans, Darren Wershler-Henry, Craig Dworkin, and Christian Bök as examples. We are all becoming language collectors, bringing in our daily harvest from that fertile field, the internet.

The rise of the web is bound to change our relationship to writing and reading dramatically, if it hasn’t already. I recently received a missive from a friend who complained that on the web, he reads greedily and carelessly, skimming over things he would have read closely, had they been in print. I suggested that instead of lamenting this fact, why not look at it as a new reading strategy? It really is the way we read now. I often cite the example of the newspaper. In New York, after “reading” for 10 minutes, we throw the New York Times aside and we’ve already read the paper. Of course, we haven’t read the paper, not even the smallest fraction of it. When I retyped the New York Times, for the first time in my life, I really read and reread the entire paper, front to back, including the fine print that is always ignored.

LL: This connects interestingly to what you said recently in Marjorie Perloff’s interview with you in Jacket. I too like to think that “if it’s not on Internet, it doesn’t exists”. I also believe that the full impact of the Net on publishing / communication in general / public and private spheres etc is yet to grasped…(To me, the Net in some ways represents “the end” of art as a specialized practice.)

KG: I agree. To me, modernism’s most meaningful thesis was that art was no longer a specialized practice. To your point, the web is the next step toward fulfillment of this. I think it’s an unsurpassed distributive medium and that’s what makes for the paradigm shift. Now there is no use for publishers and the expenses in of needing to create and distribute a book. In a gift economies such as innovative writing or music, the web is a godsend.

On the other hand, the overall aesthetic sameness of the web (256 colors, all images created by the same tools, etc.) in some ways revalidates the more specialized artistic practices. Suddenly, things that aren’t reproducible or able to be distributed on the web – like pottery or oil painting – attain a new type of value.

LL: I like the idea of the development of one form or medium affecting the conditions of others. Sometimes I think that “the book” will survive (live “eternally”, as you say elsewhere about individual books…) much like, say, classical ballet has survived – not as an inert thing, but unable to cross certain borders, since its “other” already is up and running there….

KG: One of the great fallacies about the Internet is that it will invalidate _______ (fill in the blank) and render it obsolete. I’d prefer to see the web as an additive situation where nothing is lost, where things co-exist online and in the solid world. Books will not be finished; they simply compliment works online. Both work together to fill in the gaps. Until there’s a better solution, you’re not going to want to take your e-book reader or laptop to the beach to read the newspaper.

LL: To return to the question of speech: at one time, I liked to think of the Net as publishing’s return to (or raising to the level of) living speech. You mentioned economy, and the question of “production conditions” certainly is important here. After all, we cannot normally charge for opening our mouths… and sure, most of the time our speech is “trash”. I think the same applies to the Net – and art and literature on the Net. You cannot just “move” the “literature” to the Net, just “use” the Net for “distribution”, without affecting the basic valuations behind the idea of literature, and individual pieces of writing as well. To cite just one example: we used to believe in the “copyright” “owned” by the author – now we can see that this is a fiction. Besides, you cannot even “distribute” on the Net, only “make available”, which in some ways is a different thing altogether…

KG: Again, it all depends on the economy that the art object is travelling in. If you’re working with a type of literature whose basic valuations (monetarily, that is) are null (viz. innovative writing, poetry, etc), then what you end up with is simply a paradigm of radical distribution. I think that with a profitable literary model, then it’s a remarkable shift in meaning culminating in, as you say, making it available. I think that in our economy, the Net is simply an extension, a long arm that feeds readers what would otherwise be impossible to obtain.

LL: At the same time, the emerging new conditions will help us to see the old ones in different light. I mean, haven’t we always known that publishing poetry books is (also) a form of image marketing for the publishing companies? But maybe what we couldn’t see was just how this affected the way we value individual books / poems – even the “innovative” or avant-garde ones? I tend to see your work as a form of critique, a kind or eye-opener, here? Do you agree?

KG: One thing that the Net has done for me is to objectify language, often unhinging it from the framework that has traditionally bestowed meaning to it. I’ve come up with a new term, nude media, to describe this phenomenon. What I mean by this is that once, say, an MP3 file is downloaded from the context of a site such as UbuWeb, it’s free or naked, stripped bare of the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork itself. Completely detached from shopping impulses, unadorned with neither branding nor scholarly liner notes, emanating from no authoritative source, the consumer of these objects is left with only the wine, not the bottles. Thrown into open peer-to-peer distribution systems, nude media files often lose even their historical significance and molt into free-floating sound works, travelling in circles that they would not normally reach if clad in their conventional clothing. This applies to all web-based media, be it sound, image or text.

LL: … This reminds me of your remark in the Jacket interview on the reverse roles of avant-garde / mainstream in literature on the one hand, and the visual arts on the other. Maybe this will change when we move from Benjamin’s “age of the mechanical reproduction” to the new “age of ubiquitous connectivity”. Anyway, moving from the visual to the literal arts, your situation seems interesting.

KG: Yes, I am fortunate enough to be in a position to be able to see both sides, and again, I need to mention economy and contextualization. As long as the most expensive objects on earth are oil paintings (Van Gogh’s sell for close to $100mm; the most expensive diamond sold for $16mm), it’s going to be a long time before the visual art world embraces the new “age of ubiquitous connectivity”.

But with literature and music, the paradigms of the new distributive systems work in full force. In their digitized form, words and music seamlessly engage Benjamin in the environment of “ubiquitous connectivity.” Literature and music have always thrived on numbers, not price for their impact. Hence, the web exponentially increases availability, spreading itself thinner – and wider – than could ever be imagined even a decade ago.

LL: Once I mentioned Benjamin, I actually went back to re-read the famous essay on the Net, of course). I was struck by the way Benjamin explains the withering away of the “aura” – the absolute singularity as the main condition of an art work – connecting it to the disappearing of immediate contact between artist / performer and his/her audience (exemplified for him in the difference between theatre and cinema). Now it would seem that with the Net, and with what you interestingly call “nude media”, we are back to the absolute singularity and the aura – only now located and controlled differently, with and by the receiver, not the sender-originator of the piece of art. Would you buy this?

KG: I think that a lot of the new Net Art and e-poetry tends to specifically address the mechanisms of the web as its content. In 1996, a French film maker friend theorized that it was useless to ask “what’s the new style?” in the arts. He said – and presciently so – that the new artistic paradigm is distribution. I think he was implying that in a time on ceaseless and vast pluralism, it’s not so much what you do that counts – for in internet space there is an audience for every type of art – but how you distribute it. I think that the Net artists and e-poets often tend to bypass the paradigm of distribution in favor of interventional programming and media manipulation as the subject matter for their work. In my opinion, both co-exist and for me, the more powerful argument is in favor of radical distribution, both economically and, just as important, politically.