Conceptual Writing and the Russians

Over on the Los Angeles Review of Books, Matvei Yankelevich has just published a very interesting response to Marjorie Perloff “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” published in the Boston Review’s May/June 2012 issue. In his piece, Yankelevich  not only makes an excellent case for why a variety of contemporary poetic strategies should not all be lumped together under the label “conceptual,” but he also brings Russian conceptual writers Dmitri Prigov and Vsevolod Nekrasov into the conversation.

Like Yankelevich, I’ve been writing about the neglect of Russian conceptual poetry and trying to bring it into the Anglophone conversation about conceptual writing. I have a chapter on Prigov’s work in A Common Strangeness, where I write about how I think Russian conceptualism has been misunderstood partly because of a misunderstanding over the “romantic” label given to it by Boris Groys and elaborated in a certain way by Mikhail Epstein. I think Perloff’s dismissal of Prigov’s conceptualism as having little or nothing to do with conceptualism in the West partly arose from reading Epstein on Prigov (this in turn also has to do with these Russian critics’ desire to distinguish between Russian and Western conceptualisms––that’s a longer story than I can get into here but one I go into in some detail in A Common Strangeness).

But I think the absence of the Russians from recent conversations about conceptual writing in English also has to do with ignorance and that this is beginning to change. When I raised Prigov with Kenneth Goldsmith, he was keen to learn more and to put some of Prigov’s work up on UbuWeb (something I’m working on). I’ve also shared some of my work on Prigov with Vanessa Place, and in response she produce a piece entitled “Prigov is a Genius.” I quote from Place’s Prigov piece in my essay “Everybody’s a Genius,” which should be up on Jacket2 shortly.

Yankelevich’s suggestion that Prigov’s example might help us understand the performativity involved in conceptual practices is right on, I think. And in fact, I take this idea up in an essay on “Russian Lessons for Conceptual Writing” that I’ve just written for a forthcoming collection on Anglophone conceptual writing. Still, I do think that in making his case Yankelevich risks flattening the differences within Anglophone conceptual writing, between, for example, Place’s “left,” feminist-informed conceptualism and the strictly formal, “right” (to use Barrett Watten’s distinction) conceptualism of someone like Christian Bök or Dworkin. Rather, I think that Prigov’s example can help reveal the variety of conceptual practices currently going under the heading “conceptual writing” in the Anglophone world.

About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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