One day, I had lunch with Goldsmith. “When skill is out of the picture, and it is in most of my books, then you’re left with the concept,” he said. “My cutting and pasting is an acknowledgment of this. I’m dead serious that this is writing now. You may not want to hear that or think of it as writing, but I’m telling you that the moving of information is a literary act in and of itself. Even when people aren’t reading it.”
“If your work is boring and horrible to read, why are you invited to the White House?”
“Because I’m a charismatic performer,” he said. “My work is unreadable, but it’s performable.”
Goldsmith’s rhetoric—saying, for example, that he never has writer’s block, because there is always something to copy—annoys a lot of people. Conceptual art and conceptual poetry embody ideas, and both descend from Duchamp. Painting and sculpture are meant for the eye; conceptual art is meant for the intellect. Lyric poetry values identity, metaphor, and precision. Conceptual poetry “challenges subjectivity, metaphor, and precise language,” Goldsmith said. He believes that he is applying to poetry art-world practices that are nearly a century old. The art world has become so accustomed to outrage and turmoil that it is now nearly indifferent to controversy, he said. “The art world’s been through counter-movements, counter-revolutions, and then counter-counter-movements,” he said. “People’s idea of art is infinite, whereas their idea of poetry is very limited. Poetry is such an easy place to go in and break up the house. The avant-garde loves to destroy things, and I’m an old-school avant-gardist.”
Marjorie Perloff is widely considered the most influential critic of experimental poetry. She regards Goldsmith as “basically a realistic writer who gives you the feel of what it is like to be living in New York now,” she told me. “You can’t pay too much attention to what he says. ‘I’m the most boring writer who has ever lived; you don’t need to read it.’ If he really believed that, he wouldn’t bother.”
Perloff said that her friends often think that Goldsmith’s work “is ridiculous and stupid, that Kenny’s a self-promoter and anybody could do it, and I maintain that anybody couldn’t do it,” she said. “As with all conceptual art, it’s a matter of very careful selection. All his works are not equally good. I don’t care for ‘Day.’ It’s a kind of hyperreality. My students love it, though. They like that he presented, in an almost Joycean way, what it is like to experience a single day.”
As with all writing, “the aesthetic questions remain,” she continued. “You can say you’re glad that not everyone writes this way. It’s an acquired taste, and it’s comparative. I love Gertrude Stein, but most of the time I’d rather read Tolstoy.”
Goldsmith’s hegemony as a conceptual poet, achieved with Perloff’s support—his appearance at the White House and on “The Colbert Report”; the perception that he receives the best-paying offers for readings, and the best invitations, and gets the most attention; his association with the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches; the way he dresses and his studied nonchalance; his aggressive pleasure in upsetting people, his eagerness to promote himself, and his air of self-satisfaction—has led a number of other conceptual poets to feel that he monopolizes a territory that excludes them. Many of these writers identify themselves as poets of color. A poet named Tan Lin wrote me, “The conceptual program, as it has been developed and codified by critics in the past ten years or so, and I am really talking about the institutionalization of conceptual poetry in academia, has focused mainly on the work of white authors.” Dorothy Wang, a professor at Williams, said that poets of color have grown “pissed off by the stranglehold white people have on avant-garde poetry.”
Last March, Goldsmith gave a reading at a conference at Brown University. He read a poem that he called “The Body of Michael Brown,” an appropriation of Brown’s autopsy report, which he thought could have been included in his book as “the eighth American disaster.” About a hundred people were in the audience. Goldsmith wore a long black skirt over dark leggings and a black suit jacket. He looked like a Coptic priest. He stood beneath a projection of a photograph of Brown in his high-school graduation robe. He announced that he would read a poem about the quantified self, meaning one that catalogued the evidence obtained from the close examination of a body, similar to the way he had examined his own body in “Fidget.”
He read for thirty minutes, pacing forward and back. For dramatic effect, he ended with the doctor’s observation that Brown’s genitals were “unremarkable,” which is not the way the autopsy report ends, and when he finished he sat down in the front row. He thought that the reading had been powerful—“How could it not have been, given the material?” he said. He believed he had demonstrated that conceptual poetry could handle inflammatory material and provoke outrage in the service of a social cause. Mairéad Byrne, a poet who heard him, told me that she thought the audience was stunned. A young man in the audience told her that for thirty minutes he had thought about nothing but Michael Brown.
Rin Johnson, a young artist, wrote me that the reading had upset her. She wanted to interrupt but didn’t want to be rude. “I also didn’t want to have to fight against a room full of white people who might be interested in hearing more,” she wrote. At the end of the performance, Johnson, who is black, addressed a few remarks to Goldsmith, “something not very articulate, as soon as I could, scolding Goldsmith like a shocked grandparent, something to the effect of That was lazy. I can’t even believe you did that.”
I asked Goldsmith what he had hoped to provoke. “Well, I don’t know if I went into it with the intention to provoke, but I understood that it would be a provocative gesture,” he said. “It had a lot of power, the kind of thing that happens all the time in the art world. People behave very badly in the art world, but it’s what pushes boundaries and makes discussion.”
The morning after the reading, Goldsmith was on the train to New York, looking at his phone, when he began to see objections to his reading, mostly from people who had only heard about it. During the next few days, the objections grew vehement. One came from a group called the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo—“gringpo” being gringo poetry. The Mongrel Coalition is anonymous, and didn’t respond to questions I sent. Its Web site announces, “Our targets are: Homonationalists, Whitmanian twink poets, white LGBT poets who use the trophy of queerness as negator of racial privilege . . . bitches who write in English but refuse to see it (if you write in English, you are already in translation . . . Marjorie Perloff & Kenneth Goldsmith the overseers of poetry . . . poets who write ‘Identity politics are bullshit.’ ” Of Goldsmith the coalition wrote, “On Friday night—in what was clearly an attempt to salvage the corpse of ‘conceptualism’—Goldsmith made explicit a slippage that we (and others) have been bemoaning for years: The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA infecting everyone in the world. We refuse to let it be made ‘literary.’ ”
Goldsmith wrote a response in which he placed the piece in the context of his methods, but it appeared only to make people angrier, perhaps because he didn’t apologize. He was paid five hundred dollars for his reading, and he gave the money to Hands Up United, an organization that called, among other things, for an investigation of Michael Brown’s death. He also asked the university not to make available the video of his performance.
Throughout the spring and early summer, a number of online literary journals published withering pieces about Goldsmith. Several blogs on sites such as the Poetry Foundation also rebuked him. Goldsmith spent most of May and June giving readings and workshops in Europe, where, as far as he could tell, people either hadn’t heard of the controversy or were more interested in conceptual poetry; only one person asked him about it. An art school in Switzerland had him fill out a questionnaire, which it published online. “Outlaw,” his answer to the question “My background—in one sentence,” so inflamed an experimental poet named CAConrad that Conrad sternly lectured him on what the word meant, then solicited responses to the Brown reading from twenty-nine poets. None were supportive. Conrad, who is white, published the reactions, along with his essay, on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site, in what he called “a document against White Supremacy Poetics.” Among the responses was one by a poet named Collestipher Chatto, who wrote that Goldsmith’s reading had “made Brown’s death a sort of scapegoat for the Euramerican nation to purge itself of its transgressions.”
In another long piece, a poet named Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, wrote that the reading showed that “Conceptual Poetry literally sees itself as white power dissecting the colored body.” What seemed to offend people most about Goldsmith’s reading was that he appeared to have used Michael Brown’s death for his own purposes.
Some people wondered whether the reading might have been received differently if Goldsmith had explained his intentions. If he had “prefaced the work calling it a piece of protest poetry (or something) I am pretty certain the work would have been considered a triumph,” Rin Johnson wrote to me. Goldsmith said that he had not made any prefatory remarks because he believed that his sympathies were plain, and because he felt that art should not depend for its effect on explanations.
Al Filreis, the head of the contemporary-writing center at the University of Pennsylvania, thought that the reaction had something to do with the ambiguity of Goldsmith’s method. “Kenny’s version of N+7 is retyping,” Filreis said. “It’s N+0. No one reading Rosmarie Waldrop would think that she had no problem with the declaration ‘All men are created equal.’ But, with N+0, you don’t always know what he’s doing. The question for an artist becomes: How certain do I have to be to make it clear that I intend to make this text work a certain way? How much complicity is there in reading a horrifying text?”
Other academics were pleased that Goldsmith had been set upon. “I am hoping that there has been enough anger that he won’t survive,” Cathy Park Hong, at Sarah Lawrence, told me. “Maybe he really did mean to be sympathetic, who knows. Two, three years ago, it would have been ‘That’s Kenny being Kenny,’ but in this racial climate you don’t get away with it.”
Marjorie Perloff said that when she heard about the reading she thought “it was a terrible mistake and certainly in bad taste.” The larger fault, however, lay with the obsession in the poetry community with political correctness. “It began with, You’re not allowed to criticize a poem by a woman,” she said. “Then it was poets of color. Now a poet is an activist who writes in lines. That has nothing to do with poetry. It’s just provocation and proclamation.”
About the only poet to defend Goldsmith publicly was an African-American named Tracie Morris, whom he knows. In an Internet exchange with a black man who identified himself as an artist and a curator, Morris said that Goldsmith was right to read the report, because there was no correct way to approach such material. For white people to ignore Brown’s death would be just as damaging, she wrote. What made the piece difficult for her was that she regarded it as “the truth of what happened,” she wrote. “It’s not poetic ‘interpretation’—it’s not a speech. It’s what we are ‘left with,’ the dispassionate, painful truth of this child’s lifeless body.”
Goldsmith makes a substantial part of his living from readings, and over the summer he was concerned that fewer places would hire him. A group calling itself the New Order of St. Agatha posted a document that it called “Kenneth Goldsmith Is Reading at My _______________. Now What?” The text says, in part, “It’s hard to resist the impulse to kill Kenneth Goldsmith, but many different and more effective strategies are available.” And, “Try things like: Sitting in the audience and reminding people Kenny is a racist by periodically yelling, ‘Racist!’”