As an appellate lawyer and conceptual poet Vanessa Place is no stranger to controversy, and it’s not unlikely that some members of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) who engineered her dismissal from the 2016 conference subcommittee (and some who approve of that decision) harbor reservations about conceptual poetry.

A largely bogus and overlong dust-up about the nature of conceptual poetry has been prolonged by people who characteristically run short of enlightening things to say. Part of the blame rests with conceptual poets who talk too much about what they’re doing and wear a certain off-putting hauteur about it. Much of the blame rests with poets who don’t get it. It’s about relishing word objects and seemingly inappropriate ideas, about picking them up and putting them down according to impulses and energies of the moment.

Like most poetry developments, it has much to say to makers of other kinds of poetry. And, like most creative movements, it was foreshadowed by earlier writers who had no name for it. For example, there are clearly elements of conceptual poetry in George Chapman’s The Shadow of Night (1594), just as there are surrealist elements in the paintings of El Greco long before anyone spoke of surrealism. And many poets today, myself included, use conceptualist practices in poetry that aren’t classified as conceptual and wouldn’t be welcomed at conceptualist readings.

Conceptual poetry enables poets to introduce outré notions and sounds and imagery into contexts where they don’t seem to belong. John Ashberry has been doing this for a very long time, and the result is often to make connections and associations that otherwise would have eluded us. AWP has taken the position that Ms. Place’s criticism of Gone With the Wind is inappropriate to its conference, a disturbance. Conceptual poetry welcomes disturbance, so Ms. Place is at home in this controversy even if if her AWP critics are not. She is disturbing their idea of what is relevant and appropriate.


This is a sidebar to the essay, “AWP, Get Over Yourself,” published in the #RaceMatters, #BlackLivesMatter, #WordsMatter, #ArtMatters issue.


Illustration: The Laocoön is an oil painting created between 1610 and 1614 by renowned Greek artist and Spanish Renaissance master Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco (“The Greek”). It is part of a collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.