Writing for Readers

Reviewed by Weldon Hunter

Dani Spinosa, in the introduction to her debut book, describes her intention “to demonstrate how postanarchism offers a useful theoretical context for poetry that is not explicitly political” and also to “propose . . . a postanarchist literary theory that reframes the reading and writing of experimental poetry as activist practice.” Spinosa replaces the idea of experimental poetry as vanguard work with a view favouring “a more egalitarian relationship between the reader and writer”—with a special focus on how the role of the author can be complicated through the use of machines or chance operations in the writing process.

The first chapter looks at writers “whose machine-writing practices function retrospectively as precursors” to the digital and electronic poetry experiments of later chapters. Spinosa’s discussion of Jackson Mac Low and John Cage acknowledges the matter of authorial choice within the chance-based compositional procedures these two writers are famous for. Spinosa also investigates Craig Dworkin’s concept of the “illegible,” or texts which feature non-semantic communication: for example, an experimental work like Mac Low’s The Stein Poems is described as a playful and “politically effective anarchist-activist text in that it acts as an analogy of a free community rather than offering a description of one.” It is Spinosa’s project to seek how experimental, machine-produced texts can, perhaps paradoxically, create greater reader engagement, producing the “free readers” of the book’s subtitle.

The second chapter investigates the possibilities of reader freedom and the subversion of authorial intention in the machine-written feminist texts of Susan Howe, Juliana Spahr, Erín Moure, and Harryette Mullen. Foregrounded is “the author’s refusal to entirely deny her subjectivity” and the possibility of a post-anarchist subjectivity “that does not oppose ‘selfhood,’ but rather proposes more useful ideas of selves bound in interdependence.” Of particular interest is Spinosa’s discussion of Mullen’s intervention in the constraint-based methods of the Oulipo, the oddly exclusive bastion of white European male writers who explore “potential literature.”

The following two chapters continue to look at increasing the potential for free readers in the genres of conceptualist and digital writing. Spinosa’s critique of conceptualists such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Christian Bök is the most polemical and exciting section of the study. Discussing Goldsmith’s concept of “uncreative writing” in his work Soliloquy (a record of every word he uttered in a week), Spinosa writes that, while the premise once seemed radical and challenging, “it has become the norm for people to approach digital text in much the same automatic, uncritical way that Goldsmith recommends for his writing.” Instead, she argues, what is now needed “is to open up new pathways to radical reader agency,” and she considers some contemporary pioneers, including Jim Andrews, in the final chapter. Anarchists in the Academy is required reading for anyone in the field of contemporary and experimental poetry and the digital humanities.

This review “Writing for Readers” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 164-165.

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