Kenneth Goldsmith: Context Is The New Content
Progress comes from those who push against convention. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith has disrupted his field by rejecting the very notion of originality.
Kenneth Goldsmith is a pioneering writer whose work pushes the boundaries of poetry. The author of over two dozen books of poetry, essays, and criticism, he was appointed the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate in 2013.
Born in Long Island in 1961, Goldsmith earned a BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. He worked as a text-based artist and sculptor before turning to poetry.
Much of his output relies on appropriation and repurposing of existing texts, motivated by the ideas expressed in his 2007 manifesto, “Uncreative Writing”: that any language can be poetry. For Day (2003), he retyped a complete edition of The New York Times. His trilogy Weather (2005), Traffic (2007), and Sports (2008) transcribed verbatim broadcasts on those topics. His controversial poem “The Death of Michael Brown” (2015) reproduced the medical examiner’s autopsy of the unarmed teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MI.
Goldsmith is the founder of PennSound, an online archive of over 1,500 recordings of poets reading their own work. He teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
The disrupters, those game changers who disregard tradition, are much admired in today’s individualistic society, but difficult to embody or even observe in the wild. And then, you encounter the poet Kenneth Goldsmith.
Kenneth Goldsmith: If I’m doing a piece of writing and I ask myself, “Can this in some way be construed as not being writing?”—then I know I’m on the right road.
Goldsmith is a pioneer of what he calls “uncreative writing”—an idea that hinges on his belief that, in the digital age, it’s as acceptable for a writer to appropriate other’s words as for an artist to riff on corporate logos. But the literary world hasn’t always been in lock step behind him.
Goldsmith: I mean, nothing I’m doing in literature is new. It’s all secondhand ideas from the art world. And with the advent of the digital, it all made sense to bring these things into literature. People didn’t like that. It continues, I believe, to upset people to have those ideas. But I’m thinking, “These are codified, mainstream ideas in other fields. Why can’t literature get up to speed with this? It’s not so hard.”
Goldsmith: The idea that you could copy and paste language revolutionized writing. Now, that hasn’t changed at all. And yet, we still find ourselves in these age-old battles of plagiarism. And the fact is, all we’re doing is copying, and pasting, and retweeting, and sharing, and mirroring. And, in fact, everybody still is demanding everybody to be—or artists, anyway—to be as original as they once were.
But for all the ways he’s embracing the digital, Goldsmith can’t seem to let go of the printed word. He’s the author of 11 books, none of which could be described as page-turners.
Goldsmith: The books are really interesting to talk about, and really interesting to think about. They’re sometimes less interesting to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting to read. That just means that it’s a different type of reading.
Take, for instance, Soliloquy, which was a record of every word Goldsmith spoke in one week in the spring of 1996. On June 16th of the following year, Bloomsday, he wrote down every move his body made during a 13-hour period. But Goldsmith’s most famous work is Day, a retyping of one edition of The New York Times from September 2000.
Goldsmith: There’s something about cutting and pasting that I like conceptually. And I believe, in the future, generations will be able to simply cut and paste and claim it as their own. Myself, I’m still a little bit old-fashioned. When I type it, and when it appears in my Microsoft Word document, in my font, it looks like my writing. And it becomes my writing, in a sense. Walter Benjamin said, “The difference between reading something and copying something is the difference between flying over a landscape in an airplane and walking along that road.” It’s not prescriptive, either. I’m not saying this for everyone. I’m just saying, “Let’s admit this into the toolbox that we have as writers.” Right now, it’s really verboten.
AJC: But, by and large, is it not your intention to shock?
Goldsmith: No, it’s not my intention to shock at all.
Goldsmith: It all makes sense to me. It’s not about shock. People sometimes find that idea’s provocative, but that’s not my intention.
AJC: Are you hurt by it when people, then, are shocked, or have the wrong reaction to what you intended?
Goldsmith: No, I assume that my ideas are somewhat unconventional.
Kenneth Goldsmith has dedicated himself to the project of uncreative writing for the last two decades. And though his core philosophy hasn’t changed much, he says there are things about his younger self that he both admires and abhors—among these: brashness, insensitivity, and self-righteousness.
Goldsmith: And all of that made, I believe, great art. That person has matured, at this point, and doesn’t feel the need to make those kinds of statements. When we first started off saying, you said, “Haven’t you sought to shock?” And I would have said, “Yes, that earlier artist did seek to shock.” And now, this person seeks to reify those shocks, and to explain those shocks in ways that I had no patience earlier to explain them and reify those things.
Goldsmith: Become a little bit more generous, I think. I hope.
AJC: The counsel of the years.
Goldsmith: I’m 56, and I’ve been doing this project—this one specific project—for 20 years. In a sense, I think my work is done. If I never wrote another book, it really wouldn’t make much of a difference. You know, I think about this all the time because I’m really on the cusp of a third act. Maybe the first act was being a visual artist, the second act was being a poet, and the third act remains to be seen. I’m looking. I’m shopping for ideas.
And regardless of what that idea turns out to be, rest assured it will continue Goldsmith’s pursuit of the unconventional.