IN CERTAIN CORNERS of the internet and many corners of cafés, people have been chatting about MFAs. Are they worth it? Are they dumb? The discussion is fueled by the essays in Chad Harbach’s MFA vs. NYC, as well as Junot Diaz’s impassioned response about how undiverse workshops are or were when he was an MFA candidate at Cornell. The obsession with weighing the pros and cons of MFA programs has spurred many essays and books, including Should I Go to Grad School?, a collection of many artists’ views on the subject. “No,” said Sheila Heti, and conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith agrees. His essay’s just two short pages, and he reflects on how the relationship between poetry and academia has changed since he first faced the job market in the 1980s.
Throughout his career, Goldsmith’s projects have stood out for their sheer weirdness and wacky brilliance. He’s the founding editor of UbuWeb, a web-based archive of avant-garde poetic and visual art that’s open to the public. Goldsmith is classified as a “conceptual poet” and preaches that uncreativity should be a ruling principle in the creative process. In 2005, he transcribed a year’s worth of New York Times weather reports and published it as a poetry collection: The Weather; then he transcribed the paper for just one day and published it as Day. Last summer, he sent out a call for help, asking people to join him in “Printing Out The Internet” and send it to him. He received over 10 tons of paper. Lesson learned: as he told me, “There’s a shit ton of internet out there.” I touched base with Goldsmith over email and discussed the state of the arts, UbuWeb’s agenda, his forthcoming rewriting of Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, and being uncreative.
In your essay in Should I Go to Grad School?, you write that getting an academic job provided you the chance to spend your days in "unalienated labor." Can you explain that phrase?
Alienated labor is having to do a job that you don't care about just to earn money. It's literally alienating. Unalienated labor is having a job that you actually get something out of. While I may, for instance, rather be home writing, I feel like teaching students and sharing ideas is a worthwhile way to make a living. At the end of the day, I feel that, in some small way, I've made the world a better place.
What advice do you give to young poets in 2014?
Take as many risks as you can because poets have nothing to gain by playing it safe and we have nothing to lose by taking risks. Nobody wins in poetry and everybody wins in poetry. It's a rare moment in the arts where the stakes are so low that not to be as experimental as possible is foolish. Enact utopia. Now.
Could you tell me a bit more about what defines this "rare moment in the arts"?
The arts are so money-oriented and heavily contingent upon market and market share. Poetry is the only place in the arts where all the money in the world can't do anything — it can't make a better book, it can't make a better poet; poets keep writing regardless of money. It's utopia. Money has no value in poetry.
UbuWeb is in its eighteenth year. First: how'd you pick the "Ubu" part of its name?
Ubu comes from Alfred Jarry's 'pataphysical play "Ubu Roi," which was premiered in Paris in 1896 and was so scandalous that it caused a riot.
One of Ubuweb's recently posted recordings is of Burroughs reading from Junky, a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel. How'd UbuWeb find this recording?
It came from file sharing, like many of the things we find. Ubu is invited to many wonderful private file-sharing sites filled with treasures available to only a few. Like Robin Hood, we take our stuff from them and release them to the general public. We believe in free and open access to all intellectual materials for everyone … Nothing about UbuWeb is reliable, trustworthy or real. It's just a façade.
About Junky, the accompanying introduction states: "Junky has no agenda, good or bad, for its influence in the world. It simply lays out the facts, leaving them for the reader to do what they want with them." It seems this can apply to UbuWeb, too.
Sure. We have no idea how our materials are used but we're thrilled to find that they are often misused. For instance a lot of the dance community plunders Ubu for weird sounds for dance mixes, not knowing or caring about their historical context. We hear that our Bruce Nauman sound poems are finding their way into dance floor mixes in Sao Paulo. We adore that.
Last summer you invited the world to print out the entire internet — an immense undertaking. Do you now see it as a success?
Yep. We pretty much printed the whole thing. It was a great success.
How many people participated in the Print the Internet project? How many pages is it?
We received submissions from approximately 20,000 people. It was ten tons of paper.
What did you learn about text and materiality from the project?
That there's a shitload of internet out there.
What was the most boring thing submitted?
Tax forms. Lots of them. The best was entire inboxes full of secrets — the NSA would kill to have what I got voluntarily.
How did you go about compiling it — was there an attempt at organizing what you received?
If it appeared on the web, it was accepted. It was thrown into a large pile, 6 meters wide by 8 meters high.
Is the final result available somewhere for everyone to see?
No, it has all been recycled.
What was the point of doing it beyond proving how expansive the internet is?
To materialize just how damn much information there is. The only way we can understand this is to materialize it.
What's your current project?
For the past five years, I have been working on a rewriting of Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project set in New York City in the twentieth century. It will be the same size as Benjamin's, a half-million words. The idea is to use Benjamin's identical methodology in order to write a poetic history of New York City in the twentieth century, just as Benjamin did with Paris in the nineteenth. I've taken each of his original chapter headings (convolutes) and, reading through the entire corpus of literature written about NYC in the twentieth century, I have taken notes and selected what I consider to be the most relevant and interesting parts, sorting them into sheaves identical to Benjamin's. The book will be published by Verso, with any luck, sometime next year.
Why set this in New York City?
Benjamin's original title for The Arcades Project was "Paris Capital of the Nineteenth Century." Mine is "New York Capital of the Twentieth Century."
The Arcades Project was written while Benjamin was on the run and was ultimately unfinished — he took his life to avoid being captured during WWII. How will you deal with rewriting the book outside of the same historical and personal context?
Fifty years ago Barthes told us not to be overly reliant on biographical narratives when reading literature, hence his notion of textual studies. I take Benjamin in a purely formal level. Besides, his life and times and mine couldn't be more different.
Will your book also be unfinished?
Of course not. I most likely will not commit suicide to avert falling into the hands of the Nazis over the next few months as I put the final touches on the manuscript.
Do you think "uncreativity" can be taught?
No, but I do think that creativity can — and should — be unlearned.
Do you consider yourself uncreatively inspired by anything or one?
Only by the internet. It's really the only thing in the world I find inspiring.
How does one go about unlearning creativity?
By being dumb. Purposely.