> classes > experimental writing, spring 2010


Experimental Writing

Nick Montfort

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 2010 is tentative.

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, admire particular techniques that were evidently used in their composition, and wonder aloud about how these techniques can be extended. (This is "theoretical writing" rather than "experimental writing," but we'll get on to the experimental writing soon enough.)

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 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 writing, and the purposes behind the writing, and will not resort to either euphemism or brutality.

8) Initially, specific short writing assignments will be given for the following week. Later in the class, participants will develop concepts for an work on their main projects. The parameters of these projects are to be determined by the participants themselves.

Nick's office hours are Thursdays 2:30pm-4pm and by appointment in 14N-233; Nick is also available on IM/iChat (screen name writingnick) 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 will 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.

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 will also read all 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

Mumbo Jumbo ($)
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
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 / Long Texts

February 3: Introduction: Short texts from different periods

February 10: 'Pataphysics and Dada

Writing due Feb 10: (1) Write a good sentence of exactly 100 words. (2) Choose a writing process or constraint inspired by one of our 10 readings from Feb 3 and, using it, write a something of no more than one page.

Readings for Feb 10: Pataphysics: A Religion in the Making (Asger Jorn), The DADA Manifesto (Tristan Tzara), The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin (William Burroughs).

February 17: Surrealism

Writing due Feb 17: (1.) Cut up three 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. You have four poems to turn in.

Readings for Feb 17: And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis (David Gascoyne)

February 24: In(ter)ventions Report

Writing due Feb 24: (1.) Play several rounds of Question & Answer with friends. Bring the best results (at least 3) to class. (2.) Invent a reasonably simple writing game similar to Exquisite Corpse, Question & Answer, and Syllogism.

No reading due this class; start on Eunoia.

March 3: Oulipo and "Noulipo" (including Euonia)

Writing due Mar 3: (1.) Bring an unusual, innovative text to class that fascinates you (something “experimental,†1 page, 13 copies) (2.) Bring a short text you love (does not have to be “experimental,†1 page, 13 copies) (3.) Fire a probe: In 1 page, explore a process, constraint, etc. you may use in your final project.

Readings for Mar 3: Christian Bök's Eunoia, focusing on the title poem.

March 10: Conceptual writing and false translation

Writing due Mar 10: (1.) Write two 20-consonant poems in two distinct voices (2.) Write 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. (4.) Select any previous writing of yours for this class and revise it without changing process, form, constraint.

Readings for Mar 10: William Gillespie's Table of Forms. (I don't expect you to read the whole book/site, but you should study and understand how several different sorts of forms are used in composing poems.) Selections (handed out) from David Cameron's Flowers of Bad and Adeena Karasick's The House that Hijack Built. Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion.

March 17: More on conceptual writing, some concrete poetry

Writing due Mar 17: (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.) Do another cut-up/collage using a source text or texts of your choice, and considering the visual qualities of the source typography and the final result.

Readings for Mar 17: Four visual poems by Augusto de Campos, available as PDFs at Three untitled poems by Haroldo de Campos, linked from the top of Carnival, first panel, by Steve McCaffrey,

March 31: Writing on the street

Writing due Mar 31: Write a set of slogans. (The slides on May 1968 and the role of the slogan "Never Work" provided some context for this - slogans can be powerful and meaningful, and you don't have to do something that's just funny or ironic.)

Readings for Mar 31: Read the street. Look for texts that aren’t advertising, official signage, or otherwise expected. Record the most interesting texts.

April 7: Sound poetry and performance writing

Read/viewed and discussed in class: Sticker art from The 1st International Sticker Awards, Steve McCaffery reading from Carnival, scores for sound poems from Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, Naoko Takahashi's Not So Too Much of Much of Everything

To read/view for next time: Naoko Takahashi's An Image in the Past, Samuel Beckett's Rockaby (text: handed out; video of 1980 performance on YouTube: part 1, part 2), at least begin Mumbo Jumbo.

April 14: Artists' books (including Not So Too Much of Much of Everything)

April 21: The experimental novel (focusing on Mumbo Jumbo)

Writing due April 28: A Web page with, for now, your final project description (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.

To read/view for next time: Actually read Mumbo Jumbo! Complete your reading by May 5.

April 28: Digital writing: Guest reading by John Cayley and Daniel Howe

To read/view for next time: Complete your reading of Mumbo Jumbo.

May 5: Mumbo Jumbo

May 12: Presentation of final projects