> classes > experimental writing, spring 2019


Experimental Writing

Nick Montfort

Wednesdays 2pm-5pm, 14E-310

UPDATED February 13 to reflect an important occasion, Spring Vacation! We will have one fewer final project workshop class; classes beginning with 8 have been shifted ahead one week and we’ll end with presentations during class 14.

Office hours by appointment; I will also have availability often on Wednesdays 5pm-6pm. My office/lab/studio is The Trope Tank, 14N-233.

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 - Contests & Publications Further Info


Typical Class Meeting

This is a creative writing workshop course. Although the schedule will vary somewhat from class to class, a typical meeting will involve the following in some order:

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

1) Often near 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 can the works we just encountered 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? Will it? 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 to experimental writing work, and to let the writing provoke us in its our own context today.

4) Around 3:15pm we will take an eight-minute break.

5) Often when we reconvene, we will have 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) Discussion of work from class participants: One or more people will read their work aloud or otherwise present it to the group. We will be as respectful as if the work offered to us in this way were our own writing. We will sincerely try to determine how to revise, reimagine, reconceptualize, add to, or cut the text to improve the work. Initially, will not ask (or allow) the writer to interpret or explain what is being expressed in their text, because we want to focus on the work and not any explanation of it. Our discussion will be undertaken with complete respect for the writer, the text, and any 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 do weekly work on their main projects. The parameters of each person's final project is to be determined by each participant in the class.

Nick will often be able to hold office hours (at his lab, The Trope Tank, 14N-233) right after class, 5pm-6pm Wednesdays. He is also available throughout the week many times to meet in person, by appointment. Don’t hesitate to ask for one in person or by email! Additionally, students seeking to access books or other resources at the Trope Tank can do so when Nick or any other member of the Trope Tank is there, by appointment.


30% - Preparation for and participation in class. This includes the physical presence of your material being 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. Missing a class, with an unexcused absence, will reduce your overall grade by 10%, which will lower your final grade by one letter grade. (Absences for circumstances out of your control, such as health problems and family emergencies, are excused; you still will have to keep up in the course, so contact me and other students to be able do so if you have an excused absence.) Presence and lack of participation (for instance, due to being unprepared) may result in up to a 5% reduction for each class.

30% - Completion of the short week-to-week 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. The required books will be discussed in detail and will serve to prompt our writing. We will probably not cover everything listed; we will almost certainly cover several other works not on the list.

Required Books

Eunoia, The Upgraded Edition
Christian Bök
Coach House
9781552452257 (ISBN-13 for paperback)

Ronald Johnson
Flood Editions
9780990340706 (ISBN-13 for paperback)

M. Nourbese Philip
Wesleyan Poetry
9780819571694 (ISBN-13 for paperback)

Any format (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF or EPUB where available) is acceptable for any of these books. You should read each of these and have each book in class to discuss, too.

Other Books

Some of these books are out of print or have been printed in limited editions. Should we study material from them, it will be made available. For instance, in some cases, books will be shown and handed around in class. As many of these books as possible are in the collection of the MIT Libraries. They may also be made available for you to read in my office during office hours or by appointment.

Many of these are not books to be read completely. We will consider them 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

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
2003 / New Edition 2016

From Implementation
Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg

Tentative Schedule with Themes

  1. Introduction
  2. ’Pataphysics, Futurism
  3. Dada, Cut-Ups
  4. Surrealism, Games, 1st Eunoia Discussion
  5. Oulipo, Eunoia
  6. Computational Writing, Computer-Generated Books, 1st Zong! Discussion
  7. Conceptual Writing, Zong!
  8. Concrete & Visual Poetry, ARK I
  9. Erasure, ARK II
  10. ARK III, Blank Works, Minimal Poetry
  11. Book-Length Experimental Writing, Serial Digital Texts
  12. Final Project Workshop 1
  13. Final Project Workshop 2
  14. Final Readings/Presentations

1 February 6: Introduction, short experimental texts, discussion of class format

Due next class ... Writing: (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. Do not repeat one of our in-class exercises; choose some process/constraint/form than we didn’t already use together. (3) Choose another writing process, constraint, or form (again, one that has not yet been used) based on one of the readings and, using it, write something of no more than one page. (4) Revise the “t-word” exercise from the first class. Reading: “An Introduction to ’Pataphysics.” “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” by F. T. Marinetti. Other short experimental writing works may be assigned for reading this week or at any point along the way. Any additional readings required for the next week's class will be added before midnight of the current class day. They will not exceed a few pages per week.

2 February 13: ’Pataphysics, Futurism

Optional readings related to the clip from The Shinings: 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.

Also mentioned in class: "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut." Did you get it? If not, try again! If so, read it all for fun.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Cut up (literally, with a cutting instrument such as a pair of scissors or a paper knife) three printed texts into three piles of snippets. (2) Assemble three poems (or other short texts), each one using snippets from a different pile, and photograph them. (3) Replace the snippets, choose two piles to combine, draw a poem from that 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” and what that means. Reading: “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” by William Burroughs. “Dada Manifesto” by Hugo Ball, Zurich, July 14, 1916. “Dada Manifesto” by Tristan Tzara, Paris, January 12, 1921.

3 February 20: Dada, Cut-Ups

We viewed "MANIFESTO (3) (FUTURISM)" and "MANIFESTO (6) (DADA)" from Julian Rosefeldt’s remarkable project Manifesto, a 13-channel video installation that was most recently exhibited in Montreal. Relevant to our discussion of digital cut-ups, although not mentioned in class: Edde Addad’s charNG and “Alice’s Adventures in the Whale,” generated by Leonard Richardson for National Novel Generation Month.

Due next class ... Writing: (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 the game you invented with friends and bring what you consider 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 a bit more about these movements with some research — we have touched on them all with readings up to the current readings, and have had class discussion of almost all of them — and write or type a short answer (no more than 250 words!) to hand in on paper. Reading: Selections from the Oulipo. Note that you are not required to read all of Queneau’s sonnets, since it cannot be done within a lifetime. Read in a high-level and preliminary way Eunoia, so that you understand the princples of the book; closely read the first pages at least of each chapter, A, E, I, O, and U. Bring your copy of Eunoia to class next time! When we are discussing any required book (Eunoia, Zong!, ARK) you need to have your copy of the book in class.

4 February 27 - Surrealism, Games, Eunoia First Responses

In class: Compose 20 consonant poems, as seen on William Gillespie’s (via the Internet Archive).

Due next class ... Writing: (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) Go to extremes; specifically, rework a previous assignment or idea, from in class or between classes, while changing one aspect of it to be the opposite (according to you) of what it was. Reading: 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 long title poem in five chapters.

5 March 6: Oulipo, Eunoia

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

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write an email to a fellow student about that student's 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. (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: Review 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. Read in a high-level and preliminary way Zong!, so that you understand the princples of the book and have closely read several pages from the beginning of the book.

6 March 13: Computational Writing, Computer-Generated Books, Zong! First Responses

Resources for today's assignment: For computer-generated novels, the NaNoGenMo official site (rather spare). See also also specific articles and best-of lists, including ones from The Verge, Boing Boing, and Liza Daly. To find modifiable text-generating computer programs that are fairly simple, check out Memory Slam or use any of my programs on (check out the projects listed down the left side).

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write in another form of your choosing from Table of Forms (2) Develop your own form (one that can concisely stated and quickly understood) and write a piece of about a page in that form (3) Read a computer-generated book (in whatever way that “reading” satisfies you), write a short description (no more than 500 words) of how you beleive it was generated, make some observation about what is interesting to you about this book, and send your description to all of us via email. and be ready to give a brief presentation on this book in class. (4) Develop a short computer-generated text, by writing a stand-alone program or by using some other method. Reading: Excerpt from Craig Dworkin's Legion. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “@Tubman’s_Rock,” Two Poems, and Forever Gwendolyn Brooks. All of Zong!, taking note of which parts you find most impressive, affecting, and/or conceptually resonant.

7 March 20: Conceptual Writing, Zong!

Class visit: poet & Prof. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. Prof. Bertram’s work includes computer-generated poetry, and her process draws on her own writings as data. She will share some of her work and help you prepare for the leaflet assignment due next class.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Create a conceptual and/or computer-generated leaflet or chapbook, using one letter-size sheet of paper. I suggest a small amount of code, too, but am not giving you a formal limitation, only this material one. This means producing the text and designing and printing this booklet. Bring at least 2 copies and up to 9 copies to class, to facilitate our discussion of your booklet, so you and I can both have a copy, and in case you would like to offer your booklet to other students, perhaps in trade for theirs. (2) 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. Reading: Poems by Augusto de Campos, all the ones linked there. Three untitled poems by Haroldo de Campos, linked there. Carnival, the first panel, by Steve McCaffrey. Preliminary reading of ARK, which should involve close reading of the first 1/3 (Foundations).

8 April 3: Concrete & Visual Poetry, ARK I

In addition to assigned readings, class discussion/in-class reading will include: sau aus usa by Hansjörg Mayer, Bebe Coca-Cola by Décio Pignatari.

Special Guest: BIC, a poet, rapper, singer, and songwriter from Haiti.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Write three concrete/visual poems that are each different sorts of experiments. That is, do not develop any “style” or make a systematic set of three poems. Try different things. (2) Find a concrete/visual poem, or something that you read as one, somewhere — an anthology, a Tumblr, a magazine advertisement — and bring it to class, printed out, along with an idea of why you find it interesting. Reading: Catalog to Under Erasure exhibit. Downloadable as a PDF from the link. “The Aesthetics of Erasure.” Online project The Deletionist. Next 1/3 of ARK (Spires).

9 April 10: Erasure, ARK II

Special Guest: Lauren Boyle of the art collective DIS.

A small selection of books written by erasure:

Due next class ... Writing: Write a page-long text using some erasure technique. Reading: Carefully, attentively watch and listen to this performance of John Cage’s 4:33. Complete your close reading of ARK, including Ramparts and the Afterword.

10 April 17: ARK III, Blank Works, Minimal Poetry

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Produce a blank/uninscribed work and bring it to the next class. (2) Write a minimal poem — just one — and bring it to the next class. Reading: Canto I by Ezra Pound — listen to the short podcast and partial reading by Forrest Gander, in addition to reading the text of the poem closely. We will view serial digital texts together in class; no need to read them on your own first.

11 April 24: Concluding ARK and Book-length Experimental Writing, Serial Digital Texts

Digital works shown/read in class today: Unicode, Jörg Piringer; Star Wars, One Letter at a Time, Brian Kim Stefans; DAKOTA, Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

Due next class ... Writing: Minimally, (1) Send me an email briefly proposing the material format for your final project. (2) Bring some writing toward your final 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. Ideally, bring a complete draft of your project. Priority for our workshop and discsussion time will be given to these full drafts.

12 May 1: Final Project Workshop

During each of these workshops, and each of these weeks, you should continue to develop your project. You should be working on it from week to week. Each student will be expected to share new work each week. For the sake of variety and to learn about additional experimental techniques, we will discuss sticker literature, false translations, artists’ books, and other literary practices during these workshops, showing, reading, and discussing examples in class. There are no assigned readings to prepare for these discussions, however.

Due next class ... Writing: (1) Produce a Web page that will eventually serve as documentation of your project. It will have, at this point, a description of your project. By the completion of class it may have a photograph (if your project is in print form, for instance) or may have the entire interactive or non-interactive text (if your project is digital). Put this Web page online and send me the URL. (2) Continue to develop and revise your project as you have each week.

13 May 8: Final Project Workshop

Due next class ... The final project. Due on May 15 before the start of class at 2:05pm, this is to be handed in in class if it is a print/paper project. You are also assigned to update the Web page you made with the current description of your project and with either the entire digital project (if that's the sort of project you did) or some photographic documentation of it (if you made a booklet, for instance), whichever is most appropriate. This update must be done before 12noon on May 15, and you must email me to indicate it has been done before 12noon that day.

14 May 15: Final Project Presentations / Celebrations

If possible we will have others outside our class in attendance to enjoy and be provoked by the work you have done. Each student will present their project in a way they find suitable: A reading, screening, performance, etc. Students are asked to focus on sharing and present the project itself, rather than mainly talking about it.

Where You Can Submit Creative Writing

You do not have to submit your work to contests or publications to learn about writing or to be a writer. For those who are interesed, I am listing opportunities to submit work that could be relevant to experimental writing somehow. I only include opportunities where there is no cost to submit work.

Further Information

Plagiarism. Academic integrity is the foundation of all scholarship, because being able to trace how our ideas have developed in relation to other people’s theories, research, and evidence, as well as our own, is what ensures the soundness of our research. Thus university communities have a collective investment in ensuring that the practices of academic integrity are thoroughly learned and carefully practiced. As members of this class and the larger scholarly community you are expected to abide by the norms of academic integrity. Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically for this class. While a good deal of collaboration is encouraged in and out of class, all sources—of ideas as well as words and images, whether from a friend, a text, or the internet—must be acknowledged according to the conventions of academic citation. Willful disregard for these conventions—i.e., plagiarism—can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, and/or suspension or expulsion from the Institute. For more information about policies and practices, please refer to the MIT Policy on Academic Integrity:

I used a writing technique called appropriation when I ripped off the previous paragraph from another source and included it in this page, without quotation marks around it and without telling you where it came from, as if it were my own writing. For some reason it is considered perfectly ethical to do this on a syllabus for an MIT course. Be mindful that syllabus-writing using standard, required langauge, and experimental writing practices, appropriate in a contemporary poetry context, may not be appropriate for scholarly writing and may not embody academic integrity in a traditional sense. As we will discuss this semester, this does not mean that experimental writers should operate without ethics or integrity. We will not ignore the academic concept of plagiarism in this class; we will understand how appropriating text and, in certain cases, not explicitly stating one’s sources, is a method of conceptualist experimental writing that has a point to it.

WCC. The Writing and Communication Center offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers and experienced college teachers. A note of personal encouragement from your instructor: This is a very valuable resource here on campus! Please be aware that you can take advantage of the WCC as you write in this course, in any other course you are taking, or even for writing you are doing outside of a course, for instance when applying for jobs.

Lack of Laptop/Device Policy. According an official communication once sent to 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. Instead of looking to policy, be aware of what is socially and educationally acceptable, and what fits our current learning situation, as students have been in the past and as I am sure you are inclined to do.