> classes > experimental writing, spring 2013


Experimental Writing

Nick Montfort

See also student work from this class

Wednesdays 7-10pm, 14E-310

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 syllabus for Spring 2013 is tentative.

The Typical Class Meeting

This is a creative writing workshop course. Except on days when we have guests to read, present, and work with us, you can expect our class meetings, which will be held on Wednesday evenings, 7pm-10pm, to involve the following:

0) Participants will do assigned reading and writing in preparation for class.

1) At the beginning of our class meeting, at 7pm, one or more published/disseminated pieces ("other people's experimental writing") will be read aloud or otherwise presented by a workshop participant. These readings will typically be from the list of assigned pieces.

2) We will react, discuss the pieces we have heard, discover and admire particular techniques that were evidently used in their composition, and wonder aloud about how these techniques can be extended and used in other ways. (This is "theoretical writing" rather than "experimental writing," but we'll get on to the experimental writing.)

3) We will extend our discussion to cover the assigned reading. How does it 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? During this time, the instructor may give a short presentation about the historical, political, and cultural context in which the texts we have discussed were written. Note, however, that such a presentation will be left for after we have had a chance to give an immediate reaction and to let the writing provoke us in our own context today.

4) Around 8:15pm we will take a ten-minute break.

5) When we reconvene, we will begin with a short in-class writing exercise inspired by the techniques of particular people, literary groups, or movements. We will share what we wrote with each other.

6) We will discuss the exercise - not just the outcomes of it, but also the structure and setup of the activity itself, and how that facilitated or inhibited new types of writing.

7) Work from participants: One or more participants will read their work aloud or otherwise present it to the group. We will pretend that the work offered to us in this way is our own writing, and that the the underlying goals and purposes are our goals and purposes, and we will sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text to better accomplish these purposes. We will not ask (or allow) the writer to interpret or explain what is being expressed in his or her text. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer, the text, and the purposes behind the writing of it, and will not resort to either euphemism or brutality.

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 and work on their main projects. The parameters of these projects are to be determined by the participants themselves.

Nick's regular office hours are Wednesdays 1-2pm in 14N-233. Nick is also available by appointment in 14N-233; Nick is also available on IM/iChat (screen name coachmontfort) by appointment.


40% - Preparation for and participation in class. This includes the physical presence of your material form in the classroom; reading aloud or otherwise presenting the experimental writing of others; engaging in discussion that is informed by having completed the assigned reading; and doing writing during our in-class writing exercises.

20% - Completion of the short 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.


Some of these books are out of print or have been printed in limited editions. They will be made available in other ways. For instance, they may be placed on reserve at the Hayden Library and will be available for you to read in my office during office hours.

Some of these books are to be read completely, from start to finish. We will consider others in different ways. The first on the list, for instance, has too many possible poems for a person to read in a lifetime. Others will also require different sorts of reading strategies that involve understanding a framework or concept, experiencing some of the texture of the work, but not reading the text cover to cover.

A ($) indicates that you should buy the book in question at the Coop or from your favorite online or meatspace bookstore. We will read the books marked ($) in their entirety. We may also read significant amounts of the short books by Hartman and Kenner (Sentences) and by TakaHashi (Not So Too Much of Much of Everything). It would be a good idea to purchase these if you find affordable copies.

Cent mille milliards de poèmes [Hundred Thousand Billion Poems]
Raymond Queneau

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down ($)
Ishmael Reed

Alphabetical Africa
Walter Abish

Charles O. Hartman and Hugh Kenner

Emma Kay

Eunoia ($)
Christian Bök
2001 (new edition with additional poems, 2009)

Kenneth Goldsmith

Not So Too Much of Much of Everything
NaoKo TakaHashi

Flowers of Bad
David Cameron

Craig Dworkin


Hugo Ball

Kurt Schwitters

Bombardamento di Adrianopoli [Bombardment of Adrianopolis]
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

The Four Horsemen

Ambient Fish
Caroline Bergvall

What the President Will Say and Do
Jaap Blonk


Jim Andrews

The Cape
J. R. Carpenter

Kludge: A Meditation
Brian Kim Stefans

Status Update
Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy

Shorter Texts

Lewis Carroll

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
Gertrude Stein

From Finnegans Wake (pages 1 and 2)
James Joyce

Continuidad de los parques [Continuity of Parks]
Julio Cortázar

Carnival: the First Panel
Steve McCaffrey

The Situationist International
1968 and surrounding years

From Selected Declarations of Dependence (selected perverbs)
Harry Mathews

Jenny Holzer

Sameul Beckett

Via (48 Dante variations)
Caroline Bergvall

2002: A Palindrome Story
Nick Montfort and William Gillespie

From Drawn Inward (part I, palindrome poems)
Mike Maguire

From Implementation
Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg

Tentative Schedule with Themes

February 6: Introduction: Short texts from different periods, discussion of class format

February 13: 'Pataphysics and Dada

Writing assignments due Feb 13: (1) Write a good sentence of exactly 100 words. (2) Choose a writing process, constraint, or form inspired by one of our 12 readings from Feb 6 and, using it, write something of no more than one page. Use a different process/constraint/form that we used in class for writing exercises. (3) Revise your in-class writing exercise.

Readings for Feb 13: Pataphysics: A Religion in the Making (Asger Jorn), Official-looking page of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, The DADA Manifesto (Tristan Tzara), The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin (William Burroughs).

February 20: Surrealism

Writing assignments due Feb 20: (1) Cut up three printed texts into three piles of snippets. (2) Assemble three poems, one from each pile, and scan or photograph them. (3) Replace snippets, choose two piles to combine, draw a poem from the combined pile, and scan or photograph it. Print the results; you have four poems to turn in.

Readings for Feb 20: And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis (David Gascoyne)

February 27: Oulipo

Writing assignments due Feb 27: (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. Try this one out as well and bring the best results.

Readings for February 27: Pre-read the title poem in Eunoia (skim quickly through the book to understand what can be understood at a glance) and read chapers A and E closely. Bring your copy of Eunoia to class!

March 6: Noulipo / Nowlipo and conceptual writing

Writing assignments due Mar 6: (1) Bring an unusual, innovative text to class that fascinates you (something "experimental," 1 page, copies for everyone in class) (2) Bring a short text or meaninful excerpt from a text that you love (does not have to be "experimental," 1 page, copies for everyone in class) (3) Do a univocalic "translation" of a short text. (4) Fire a probe. (That is, begin an experiment or exploration by actually doing some writing.) In a single page, explore some process, constraint, etc. you may use in your final project.

Readings for Mar 6: Christian Bök's Eunoia. Complete the book. Your focus, and the focus of our discussion, will be the title poem. Bring your copy of Eunoia to class! Also, please watch and listen to Christian's reading at MIT last year.

March 13: More conceptual writing

Writing assignments due Mar 13: (1) Write two 20-consonant poems in two distinct voices (2) Write something in a form of your choosing from Table of Forms (3) 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. (4) Select any previous writing of yours for this class and revise it without changing process, form, constraint. You can change anything else.

Readings for Mar 13: Selections on/from the Oulipo. (Reading all of Queneau's Sonnets is not required, since it is impossible.) William Gillespie's Table of Forms. (I don't expect you to read the whole book/site, but you should study it and understand how several different sorts of forms are used in composing poems.) Short selections from David Cameron's Flowers of Bad and Adeena Karasick's The House that Hijack Built. Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion.

March 20: Concrete poetry, blank material as "writing"

Writing assignments due Mar 20: (1) Write in another form of your choosing from Table of Forms (2) Write in yet another form of your choosing from Table of Forms (3) Develop your own form (one that can concisely stated and quickly understood) and write a piece of about a page in that form (4) Complete a second "probe" — another one-page exploration of what may become your final project. This one can be along very similar lines as your first probe, if you were very pleased with the result, or it can be completely different. These are the last "small assignments" — the remaining assignments will be draft work toward your final project.

Readings for Mar 20: Poems by Augusto de Campos, available as image files and PDFs at Three untitled poems by Haroldo de Campos, linked from the top of Carnival, first panel, by Steve McCaffrey,

No class on March 27, which is during spring break. If you can't help but work during spring break, reading Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and developing your main project would be good things to work on.

April 3: The Experimental Novel (Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down)

Writing assignment due Apr 3: Bring some writing toward your main 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 your project has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

Readings for Apr 3: All of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Writing assignment due Apr 10: Bring some writing toward your main 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 your project has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

April 10: Serial and Parallel Digital Media Work / Electronic Literature

Dakota and other works can be found at Y0UNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES.

Jörg Piringer's Unicode.

Star Wars, One Letter at a Time by Brian Kim Stefans, by William Poundstone, and I, You, We by Dan Waber are all in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1.

Writing assignment due Apr 17: Bring some writing toward your main 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 your project has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

April 24: Erasure

Selected books written by erasure:

Writing assignment due Apr 24: Bring some writing toward your main 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 your project has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

May 1: Digital experimental writing

Several fun selections, some of which are mentioned in the main list above.

Writing assignment due May 1: Bring some writing toward your main 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 your project has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others. Also, complete a Web page with your current description of your main project (a short text) on it. This is part of your final project. The page will eventually contain the text of your project and/or documentation of it.

May 8: Presentations of main projects

The main project is due May 8 before at the start of class. You are also assigned to update the Web page you turned in last week with the current description of your project and with either the entire text of the project or some documentation of it.

If possible, I will arrange for some guests who are interested in experimental writing to join us to learn about your projects.

May 15: Collaborative experimental writing (in class)

We will build on our experiences this semester to write a collaborative experimental text together, one which we will make available to the public. No assignment due, no readings for May 15.

Note: The Writing and Communication Center (12-132) offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. Go to and click on "Appointments." The Center's core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening and Sunday hours vary by semester — check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.