"Why listen to my gut when I could listen to thousands of guts?"

Todays Reading: Robert Fitterman, Rob the Plagiarist

Conceptual writing seems to thrive on realizing the seemingly impossible, or at the least impossibly unpalatable: write a poem using only one vowel per section; transcribe everything you say or do for a week; write a book in one continuous sentence. So much so that a book like Rob the Plagiarist—a collection of shorter conceptual pieces written by Robert Fitterman between 2000 and 2008—seems almost oxymoronic. How can you write a conceptual poem under ten pages? How hard can that be? Is it even long enough to be unboringly boring?

And yet in many of these pieces Fitterman comes close to achieving something even more oxymoronic-seeming: a conceptualist lyricism. The book is explicitly concerned with subjectivities and the chasms and connections that exist between them, using the “plagiarist” techniques of appropriation and collage to turn the traditional narcissism of the lyric almost literally inside out—to create poems that look in on the subject from without rather than gazing out on the world from within. In “A Hemingway Reader,” Fitterman extracts the “I” statements from The Sun Also Rises in order to create a bleakly phenomenological record of the protagonist’s perceptual wanderings; then he revivifies the resulting text by “translating” it into his own contemporary New York experience, revealing a pattern of likeness and difference that suggests a genuinely touching meditation on the intersubjective value of literature. In “This Window Makes Me Feel,” the conceptual-lyric joining is even more explicit, actually declared in Fitterman’s gloss on the poem, which he explains was “propelled by my interest in subjectivity through appropriation. I.e., what would a text read like if it were entirely subjective, but not my personal subjectivity.” What it reads like, incidentally, is a chorus of lost, lonely, occasionally funny, often insecure voices that, through Fitterman’s linking of the poem to 9/11, becomes a chorus of the dead—anonymous voices and silenced voices being eerily isomorphic.

If Rob the Plagiarist doesn’t achieve the monumentality of Day or the virtuosity of Eunoia, well, it’s clearly not aiming to—it’s really more of a rarities and b-sides collection backing Fitterman’s ongoing epic project Metropolis. And for just that reason it offers a refreshing alternate take on conceptual writing, a break from the technicians, salesmen, and solicitors that can put such a Warhol-cum-carnival-barker face on the movement’s public presentations. There are bold and novel pleasures to be derived from that sort of thing, and no one would champion them more than me. But a book like Rob the Plagiarist offers smaller, quieter pleasures that are no less deserving of appreciation and, in their relative fragility, perhaps even more deserving of attention.