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WTF is The Source? WTF is Conceptual Writing? WTF do I do with The Source?

The Source by Noah Eli Gordon, 144 Pages, 6 X 8, $16.00


WTF is The Source?

The Source celebrates both prostitution and the life of letters. It is a touch sadomasochistic because it suffers a sense of its own belatedness, hates fussing with nature, and would like the world to be all weeds. Some think it the forerunner of what may be the international style of the coming decade, because it is secretive but hides nothing, requires an all-inclusive symbolism to determine its interpretations, while paying little attention to the complexity of mixed reverie and memory.

The poem above (from p. 9) is one of my favorite answers to the question WTF is the Source? For fun, let’s consult page 26 and see what we find there:

The source is respectful of tradition, yet grounded in the assertion that it speaks many vows with many voices, turning an actual image into an illusory one by thinking to assist the sun in performing its daily journey across the sky.

When the Source is formed and expressed in words, writing, it is true, has shaped it, but the spirit of the Source — the creative urge it represents, the feeling it expresses and evokes, and even in large part its subject matter, comes from only two words: ‘is’ and ‘are.’

Thus, our solar system spirals into a higher orbital frequency, and there is no more of the babble we’ve loved and counted among our blessings.

Part of the project of The Source is to define “the Source” by the time the book is done. At the end, this is what we are presented with:

I have come only to give you, if I can, a more vivid conception of why an intensive study of the Source will not be undertaken for the sake of seeming to undertake it. In its simplicity of overt action and complexity of unknown processes and relationships, a jump out of the classroom window mirrors its basic theme. The object would be to make it a pure art, like staring at a transmitter.

Let me begin again and appeal to you in the name of a small bird, a roach, a flower even, which might fairly say that the world is not its friend but a symbolic arena for social competition, one openly brutal or completely indifferent. Either way, the chief advantage of being human somehow makes it from one side of the wall to the other.

And that’s the end. A re-beginning. But these are interesting excerpts, to me at least, because when I read this book these are the first pages I read. I flipped through and found myself on page 9 first, then went to page 26, and then went to the end. My reasons for doing this probably had something to do with having read Noah Eli Gordon’s Note on Process first. More on this in the next section. . . .


WTF is Conceptual Writing?

Watch this first, seriously! Then check out Conjunctions for examples of poems found in The Source. And also consult Kenneth Goldsmith’s thoughts on conceptual writing. Where The Source is concerned, re: conceptual writing, here are excerpts from Noah Eli Gordon’s Note on Process:

From January of 2008 to September of 2009, I read only page 26 of nearly ten thousand books at the Denver Public Library, culling from them bits of language, which I then fused together, altering some nouns to read ‘the Source’ so they become reflective of the parameters of the project. . . . I undertook this project in order to investigate whether or not constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension. It is now my belief that rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.

This helped me. I mean, as I was reading this book, I knew then that the prose blocks are collaged bits of found fragments, sentences, words, from all those books Gordon picked up at the library for over a year. I like the idea of searching for spirituality on page 26 of thousands of books. I especially like his explanation for why page 26:

The choice of page 26, while obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, is also important in Kabbalist terms; it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Additionally, according to the Talmud, the Torah would have been revealed during the 26th generation of the history of the world; thus, it is Moses who, 26 generations after Adam, receives the Torah transmitted by God.

Pretty cool, right? Made me rethink the value of the number 26. Made me feel odd and slightly floaty as I read the poems, knowing they were created from so many pages and all those pages numbered 26.


WTF do I do with The Source?

I don’t know, exactly. The pleasures of reading this are not quite like the pleasures of reading, say, a novel about four sisters, or dragons, or vampires. Instead, the pleasure is in wondering what words came from where, how, and why they were placed together just so. The pleasure is in slowly reading and gaining a more thorough understanding of the definition(s) of the Source.

I think, ultimately, I am interested in the idea of using the book as a way to start a conversation in a poetry class, a way to ask students “What is poetry? What is a poem?” I can imagine having great conversations about these questions in either a 4th grade class or a graduate seminar. It would be fun to then give the students the exercise to pick a number, go to the library, and create poems by culling and compiling text from those page numbers.

Conceptually, it’s such a cool idea, and at the sentence level, there are many pleasures to be discovered on the book’s many pages. I think these are valuable lessons for students of poetry, at any level. To learn that they are free, they can take concepts and ideas and go crazy with them, can make lovely words and sounds and images and sentences and poems from the words and sounds and images and sentences that surround them in their own libraries in their own cities in their own schools. And ultimately, what I love about this book is that it seems to me to be an ode to libraries, about the wonders that exist in them, in the books that live in them.

* * * UPDATE * * *

HTML Giant contributor Nat Otting informed me that over on the Futurepoem blog, “Futurepost,” 26 librarians (or archivists), who are poets or writers or artists, are currently responding to The Source. Today, Jessica Grim responds with a poem of her own from page 26 of books found in the Oberlin Library. Previously, Patrick James Dunagan wrote one of his own from page 26 of books found in Gleeson Library-Geshcke Center University of San Francisco. Subscribe to the Futurepost feed so you can keep up with the latest from Futurepoem!

4 thoughts on “WTF is The Source? WTF is Conceptual Writing? WTF do I do with The Source?

  1. Great post, Molly. And thanks for future(re)posting. It might not be too late for writer(artist)-librarians(archivists) to take part…One thing:


    Although Grim’s (which begins: Assuming an alphabet the man began to speak. The sun baked the earth. Words crawled.) IS 26 sentences (tho I only know this because I counted), neither it–at least necessarily or/and as far as I know–nor Dunagan’s was composed from page 26s. Of course it would be fascinating to have Notes on Process from each responder–and Dunagan does provide one–but part of the fun to is not knowing.

    You did give me a great idea for my response tho: one book from each of the 26 floors of the W.E.B. DuBois Library.

  2. What a badass book…Noah Eli Gordon is flat out one of the best poets of my generation. I’m going to get a copy of this ASAP. Thanks for putting this out there, Molly.

    I like how THE SOURCE represents a kind of heterodox conceptualism (I suppose that Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman would call it a “baroque” or “hybrid” conceptualism according to the taxonomy they establish in NOTES ON CONCEPTUALISMS) — I’d be very interested to know more about Gordon’s process of culling and fusing, of cutting and pasting. It seems like “pure” conceptualism is really being privileged in the Place/Fitterman book as well as in the editorial apparatus of Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s new AGAINST EXPRESSION anthology. In his introductory essay, Dworkin says, “Frequently, we had to admit that works we admired were not quite right for this collection because they were simply too creative–they had too much authorial intervention, however masterful or stylish that intervention might be.” It seems to me that THE SOURCE may be too stylish for the criteria of AGAINST EXPRESSION (Gordon’s “voice” seems to be all over the sections you quoted above) — it’s actual pro expression (“It is now my belief that rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.”)

    I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot these days. I was recently on a panel called “Quotation and Originality” and just wrote a review of Caroline Bergvall’s new book… And my next two projects (one will be released by Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail and one will be released by Delete Press) are appropriative projects that embrace a poetics of “stylish intervention” and, I suppose, take a different stance toward Romanticism than orthodox conceptualism.

    The Futurepost project sounds really fun. I hope John Bloomberg-Rissman will participate. He’s a librarian at UC-Riverside and the author of the magisterial FLUX, CLOT & FROTH (VOLUME 1), which is (according to the back cover copy) “an epic-length mixtape composed of thousands of algorithmically/intuitively-derived fully annotated oft-mangled bits of ecriture/parole.” The source material for the book comes from JBR’s personal library of late 20th- and early 21st-century Anglophone literature.

    And, yes, Gordon’s book really calls for a RE-SOURCE…

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