> classes > experimental writing, fall 2015


Experimental Writing

Nick Montfort

Wednesdays 2pm-5pm, 66-156

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.

Typical Class Meeting - Assessment - Schedule - Further Info


Typical Class Meeting

This is a creative writing workshop course. We meet Wednesday afternoons, 2pm-5pm. A typical meeting will involve the following:

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

1) At the beginning of our class meeting, at 2pm, 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 it’s done in support of experimental writing undertaken during the class.)

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 3:15pm 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 office hours (and “reading room” hours at his lab, The Trope Tank, 14N-233) are irregular. He is available throughout the week to chat by appointment IM/iChat (screen name coachmontfort). Audio conferences with Nick & 1-2 other students in the class will also be set throughout the semester.


30% - 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 you have done and that done by others; engaging in discussion that is informed by having completed the assigned reading; and doing writing during our in-class writing exercises.

10% - Attending one event, exhibit, reading, etc. related to experimental writing and documenting this in an email to the instructor. Christian Bök’s reading on December 2 would be a great choice, but you can select another one locally or somewhere that you visit.

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.

The lists of books, sound pieces, digital works, and shorter texts are provided to give a sense of what we will read and experience in the course. We will probably not cover all of these, and we will almost certainly cover things not on the list.

Required Books

Sphinx ($)
Anne Garréta
1986 (English translation, 2015)

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

Other Books

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 or made available for you to read in my office during office hours or by appointment.

Some of these books are to be read completely, from start to finish. We will consider others in different ways, perhaps requiring different sorts of reading strategies that involve understanding a framework or concept, experiencing some of the texture of the work, but not always reading the text cover to cover.

Samuel Beckett

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

Alphabetical Africa
Walter Abish

Charles O. Hartman and Hugh Kenner

Emma Kay

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

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

  1. September 9: Introduction
  2. September 16: ’Pataphysics, Futurism, Dada
  3. September 23: Surrealism, Cut-Ups, Games
  4. September 30: The Oulipo
  5. October 7: Constraints, Eunoia
  6. October 14: Conceptual Writing
  7. October 21: Concrete Poetry, Blank Material
  8. October 28: The Experimental Novel, Sphinx
  9. November 4: Serial Digital Texts
  10. November 25: Erasure
  11. December 2: The Material Text (w/ Christian Bök’s reading after class)
  12. December 9: Final Presentations

1. September 9 - Introduction, short texts from different periods, discussion of class format

Optional reading: A review of All Work and No Play..., a video about “hidden text” in the film, and a discussion of the translations of this text.

Writing assignments due September 16: (1) Write a good sentence of exactly 100 words. (2) Choose a writing process, constraint, or form inspired by one of the readings I presented 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) Choose another writing process, constraint, or form (again, one you have not yet used) inspired by one of the readings and, using it, write something of no more than one page. (4) Revise your in-class writing exercise (the t-word one) from the last class.

Readings for September 16: Official-looking page of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, The Futurist Manifesto (F. T. Marinetti), The DADA Manifesto (Tristan Tzara).

2. September 16 - ’Pataphysics, Futurism, and Dada

Averty’s 1965 film Ubu Roi

Readings for September 23: The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin (William Burroughs).

Writing assignments due September 23: (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. (4) Create a digital cut-up using only a computer and its text manipulation capabilities. You will need to decide how to “cut.”

3. September 23 - Surrealism, Cut-Ups, Games

Mentioned in class in regard to digital cut-ups: Edde Addad’s charNG and “Alice’s Adventures in the Whale,” generated by Leonard Richardson for National Novel Generation Month.

Writing assignments due September 30: (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. (3) Try this one out with friends as well and bring the best results. Also, a short critical/historical assignment: (4) Why is there FuturISM ... SurrealISM ... sometimes DadaISM ... but just ... 'Patahpysics (not 'Pataphysicism) ... The Oulipo (not Oulipism) ... and only sometimes Dadaism (mostly just Dada)? Inform yourself about these movements with some research, and write a short answer (no more than 250 words needed).

Readings for September 30: Selections from the Oulipo, although you are not required to read all of Queneau’s sonnets, since it cannot be done within a lifetime; also, look through all of Eunoia and read the first page of chapters A, E, I, O, and U closely. Bring your copy of Eunoia to class next time!

4. September 30 - The Oulipo

Writing assignments due October 7: (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 meaningful 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) Write a 20-consonant poem (just going through the consonants once). You may revised the one you drafted in class. (5) 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 October 7: All of Eunoia, including the poems beyond the five main chapters. Complete a reading of book that allows you to appreciate the sounds, themes, subjects, and lexicon. You should understand what the text means and how it is organized and of coruse the basic compositional principles. Your focus, and the focus of our discussion, will be the title poem. Bring your copy of Eunoia to class next time!

6. October 7: Constraints, Eunoia

Table of Forms, by William Gillespie. As a backup, a link to an (Internet Archive) copy of Table of Forms.

Writing assignments due October 14: (1) Write an email, either to the class (ew2015) list or to a fellow student about his or her work in class, cc:ing me. (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 October 14: 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.) Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion.

6. October 14: Conceptual Writing

Writing assignments due October 21: (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 involve working toward your final project.

Readings for October 21: 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,

7. October 21: Concrete Poetry, Blank Material

Examined & discussed in depth in class:

Writing assignment due October 28: 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 the project you are imagining has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

Readings for October 28: All of Sphinx. I encourage you to make notes about passages that you find interesting and worth discussing, either by marking your book or, if you cannot bear to do this, using pieces of paper. Bring your copy of Sphinx to class next time!

8. October 28: The Experimental Novel, Sphinx

Writing assignment due November 4: 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 the project you are imagining has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

Readings for November 4: “Project for Tachistoscope” by William Poundstone. Be prepared to discuss what it is about, how it works formally, aspects of the style in which it is written, how it is realized, etc.

9. November 4: Serial Digital Texts

Viewed today in class: 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 and I, You, We by Dan Waber are in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1.

Readings for November 25: “The Aesthetics of Erasure,” The Deletionist.

Writing assignment due November 25: 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 the project you are imagining has sections that you can discern as more difficult to complete than others.

10. November 25: Erasure

Selected books written by erasure:

Writing assignment due December 2: Bring a draft of your main project -- it’s okay if sections are missing, but the framework should be there and the project should be largely complete. Also, bring any questions that you have for the class about how to complete the project. Finally, create a Web page (uploading it to your MIT space) that has a draft description of your project.

No assigned reading for December 2.

11. December 2: The Material Text

Writing assignment due December 9: Finish your main project and document it by completing the short description you drafted, so that prospective/future students can understand what you did, learn about what this class is like, and be informed by your work. You may quote from and/or photograph your project for this page.

No assigned reading for December 9.

Special Event: Christian Bök, author of Eunoia, will read in Bartos Auditorium at 5:30pm, just after class, today, December 2.

12. December 9: Final Presentations

The main project is due today before the start of class at 2:05pm. 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, whichever is appropriate for your project.

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

Further Information

The Writing and Communication Center (12-132) offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers and experienced college teachers. They offer advice about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. They offer advice also about applications, theses, CVs, etc. To register with our online scheduler and to make appointments, go to . To access the Center’s many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations, go to writing-and-communic ations-center/. The Center’s core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening hours vary by semester–check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.

According an official communication sent me, "MIT has a policy of no policy regarding the use of laptops and other electronic devices in classroom." The instructor also has a policy of no policy regarding the use of laptops and other electronic devices in classroom.