Wednesday, May 8, 2013


[Editor’s Note: Thomas Fink reviewed Richard Kostelanetz’s Fict/ions and This Sentence in Talisman.  Richard Kostelanetz then engaged with the review.  Thomas Fink then responds to Richard Kostelanetz’s engagement.  In sum, the following is an engagement of an engagement of a review – this is Galatea Resurrects so … why not?]

By Richard Kostelanetz

Richard Kostelanetz’s Fict/ions and This Sentence (Blue and Yellow Dog, 2010)
Since Thomas Fink has established himself among the best critics of innovative poetry—by definition, what is rarely publicized and thus scarcely known—I thought it might be interesting for me to annotate critically his recent writing in Talisman (2013) about my books. My comments appear in italics. Sometimes I’ve given his text new paragraphs after my inserts.

Blue and Yellow Dog Press has published two books in one by Richard Kostelanetz; each starts on a different side [of a single volume] and is upside down from the other. Let’s start with the title, Fict/ions. According to its Latin roots, a “fiction” is something “made,” as “poetry” in Greek is “making,” and in this case, the splitting of fictions emphasizes division as a paradoxical form of construction, as well as the particulate quality of syllabic “matter.” Thanks, Tom. Your thought is new to me. One simple measure of criticism for me is whether it adds to my understanding. My own thesis has poetry focusing image and effect while fiction suggests duration.

In part 34 of “New Retrospective on my Fictions,” a section that follows this book within the book Kostelanetz speaks of “‘Fict/ions’ and ‘Fulcra Fictions’ that depend upon discovering within a single word two shorter words that, concluding with a period, make a narrative. . .” (unpaginated). Of course, in some of these, there are two slashes demarking not two but three words within the longer word, not one. I think it is useful to focus on varying ways in which the reader might establish a relationship between the original word and the shorter ones or find a major discontinuity. 

Sometimes, the juxtaposition of the two elements can be construed as a narrative, as Kostelanetz wishes, and sometimes it appears to enable the development of an (often strained) metonymy. In the case of “boomerang”/ “Boo/me/rang,” the construction of a narrative is more persuasive. The sound of the flying object cutting through air is a “ringing” (not subtle) denigration of the first-person narrator, perhaps because s/he is foolish to use such a dangerous implement. Also, in a reversal of the startling transformation of “manslaughter” to “Mans/laughter” through a delayed slash, surprise is engendered by Kostelanetz’s decision to place the first slash one letter earlier (“boo”) than one would expect. I generally hear “boom” in “boomerang” but not “boo.” So? Shouldn’t both be available.

The writer’s decision creates a distinction in the sounding of the second syllables of the word and of the “fict/ion.” Divergent pronunciations are also important in the gap between “inundating” and “I/nun/dating.” As also in boo/me/rang, n’est-ce pas?

When the first-person narrator and the “nun” are “dating”—something that the latter is not supposed to do—we can speculate that one or the other or both might be psychologically “inundated” with guilt, arousal, actual liquid, or some other effect of the situation’s novelty. Marvelous reading, yes, though I was merely suggesting that within the familiar word was the hint of less familiar activity.

A more politically charged fict/ion with narrative possibilities is “pickaninny”/“Pick/a/ninny.”Here, the divisions are not at all surprising, as though they explain the word’s origins. However, the racist English term for children of African descent does not derive from Kostelanetz’s verb or noun, but from the Portuguese pequeninos (“little ones”), which does not necessarily refer to race, even though the Portuguese were slave traders. The verb “pick” reminds us that young African-American slaves labored in the cotton fields alongside their elders, and the noun “ninny” creates a different torque. The writer’s divided version embodies a command to select or identify a stupid person, a racist whose atrocious epithets disparage black children. But a “ninny” isn’t necessarily black. The word becomes the title of a John Ashbery-James Schuyler collaboration. Also, if the three parts are read backwards, different interpretations arise.

In at least one case, an absurd image (and not a narrative) is the source of pleasure. We tend to think of a “knight” as a respectable, able bodied, adult-sized adult male. However, the slightly pejorative “Wee/knights” makes me think of a diminutive soldier in a big man’s armor. Of course, the adjective/ noun combination bears no appreciable relation to “weeknights.” There is no reason that the person would have a special connection to this designated time, and the elimination of pronunciation of the hard “k” in the transition from original word to split underscores this gap. Are you over-reading, Tom? Isn’t that a joke I discovered within the English word? Since humor is pervasive in most of my creative work, I shudder when a reviewer doesn’t acknowledge it.

In certain instances, narrative resides on one side of the equation and cannot be integrated with the other. As “antelopes” is transformed into “Ant/elopes,” comic narrative resides solely in the “fict/ional” marriage of the tiny insect, and a metonymic foregrounds the vast size difference between the two creatures, and we cannot bring the verb into plausible relation to the original noun. Another joke missed?

Similarly, the tangible result of a mother’s tragic burning in “Char/is/ma” is not evidence of the charisma that she might otherwise possess. The sonic disjunction echoes the thematic one. The juxtaposition of the single word and the three smaller ones indicates a displacement from a unified “hot” or “glowing” psychological quality to the disintegrative effect of actual heat. Correct.

The jocularity of “Philo/sop/her” notwithstanding [whew], at times Kostelanetz’s fict/ions take a philosophical turn. “Beaches” may be sites of pleasure and distraction from life’s hardships, but “Be/aches” indicates the inseparability of being from the possibility of pain and, of course, the final pain of dying: “Am/ends.” Further, the concept of the “immortal” is a generality that “contains” the realization: “Im/mortal.” Since the whole book is an investigation of what language can be made to do in acts of “Re/creation,” the philosophical direction is built into the project. Marvelous reading, yes.

As its title indicates, This Sentence is a book entirely composed of sentences that “talk” about themselves. Always with those two words in that order.

They take inventory on various properties of and observations or judgments about sentences. Syntax is one topic:

            This sentence is syntactically correct. . . .
            This sentence correct syntactically also is. . . .
            This sentence not correct is syntactically.

Surely, the first and third sentences are telling the truth about themselves. To say that the second one is conceptually valid would mean that a modern reader accepts inversion of the adjective/noun pattern (“sentence correct”) but not the same inversion when “not” precedes the two words in the succeeding sentence. In the second sentence, “syntactically also” is an awkward pattern of modification of an adverb by another adverb, but I cannot say that it is “incorrect,” and one can end the statement with a copular verb. It would be clearer if rephrased: This correct sentence also exists syntactically—or . . . also exists as a syntactical entity. Perhaps Kostelanetz is showing the distinction between literal correctness of syntax and conventional clarity/appropriateness, as he is in the sentence: “Clumsily is this sentence organized unfortunately.”

A substantial number of sentences cause us to look at visually or conceptually apprehensible form or mathematical features:

            Six words appear in this sentence. . . .
            This sentence has a beginning and an end. . . .
            Backwards is sentence this. . . .
            This sentence contains one verb, one article, four adjectives, and five nouns.

An obvious response would be indifference. But after seeing that each sentence performs a proper inventory, one notices possibilities of formal experimentation. If a writer composed a text with six words in each sentence or one that did not seem to have a conventionally recognizable beginning or end or one with backwards sentences (which, I believe, can be found in Bernadette Mayer, Charles Bernstein, and Jonathan Mayhew’s lists of poetic experiments) [all unfamiliar to me, alas] or one which preordains the precise number of particular parts of speech, then these constraints would probably affect tone, rhythm, range of statement, and other factors. After all, sentences are composed of such formal elements (and cannot escape them). We can profit by paying more than lip service to the cliché, “materiality of language.”

In line with this emphasis on words as entities that do not transparently signify what is outside them, Kostelanetz sometimes seem to articulate a doctrine of supreme self-reference:

            This sentence refers to nothing beyond the words in this sentence. . . 
            This sentence is this sentence and, therefore, cannot be anything but this sentence. . . .
            This sentence stands alone. . . .
            Every word in this sentence belongs where it now is.
Is “self” the correct adjective for this move?

An author can express the intention to limit linguistic reference and identity to words themselves as they exist within their syntactical unit. S/he can even tell readers to ignore the relationship among sentences in a text. However, Kostelanetz knows that the reader, disregarding authorial intention, can develop interpretation that relies on concepts external to the original words that “belong where they now are.” Any reader can expand the range of identity and reference beyond self-referential strictures: “Does not an encyclopedia of the world inhabit this sentence?” Readers create a fragment of that encyclopedia. I have more trouble following you here.

Kostelanetz also includes the realization that readers make judgments about a text that are external to the sentence’s basic identity: 

             This sentence has an abundance of clauses that, while taking the reader aside, offering him or her additional dimensions,
             suggesting yet further thoughts to consider, inevitably distract from its central line. . . .
            This sentence is pornography to some readers and not to others. . . .
            Writing this sentence has won me several friends, but no enemies.

The mere acknowledgment of the existence of a reader, who receives “offers” and “suggestions” and is led to produce “thoughts” from a writer through the vehicle of a sentence’s simple or complex structure, indicates that self-referentiality cannot be the whole story. With the use of the noun “pornography,” the writer seems to suggest that “some readers” who perceive writing solely as a conduit for psychological expression or ideological persuasion would consider major attention to the properties of the medium—and not to their concerns—“obscene.” In doing so, they fail to recognize that the philosophical investigation of language within literature is not merely art for art’s sake. And if a sentence can win friends or enemies, then there is much more to how it can be used than as Kostelanetz’s “nothing beyond . . . words.” The boast of all “friends” and “no enemies” invites our skepticism; innovative writers have penned many sentences that raised hackles. Isn’t the fabrication funny?

Often with ample humor [whew], some of Kostelanetz’s sentences announce that they do not have to “stand alone” but that their creation and dissemination can be seen in the context of the author’s extra-textual existence and sometimes his ego-fulfillment:

            The author of this sentence is known to the world only as. . . (.)
            Is not this sentence as unique as its author?. . . .
            This sentence epitomizes my literary ambitions. . . .
            What I want most from this sentence (as well as every other sentence here) is that it be memorable. . . .
            I want this sentence to be the best sentence that any writer has ever written.

While the ellipsis in the first sentence above may suggest a separation of the author’s self from his “autotelic” piece of writing [I failed to make clear, darn, that those dots announce that the words are meant to be read continuously, much like other word circles of mine], and the second one uses a seemingly rhetorical question to argue for the parallel uniqueness of author and sentence, the other three refer to the writer’s goals. What makes the third sentence funny is that there is no sense of how the author’s “ambitions” are “epitomized”; expressing “ambition” could not be the goal itself for a serious artist like Kostelanetz, so one might surmise that there is no ambition, just as the sentence, “This sentence contains every profound thought that I ever had about the art of writing sentences,” can be construed as evidence that the writer does not traffic in the delivery of “profound thoughts” but in writing that yields discovery. Correct, perfect. Perhaps the ambition is simply to write one sentence after the next to learn what there is to learn from doing it. Isn’t the declaration so impossible ironic and thus funny?

As for desiring to create “memorable sentences” and even “the best” one “ever written,” Kostelanetz implicitly exposes the hopelessness of such (im)pure ambition, because the judgment of what is memorable or best is absurdly subjective. (Not true if many readers remember. Isn’t that measurably objective?)

Criteria would differ from reader to reader. And what unveils the fragility of such aims is the arena of this catalogue poem, which pits divergent impulses and conceptual formulations of the same experimental mind against one another. Thus, conflict is out in the open. If the reader wants resolution, s/he had better achieve it herself. Unnecessary platitude?

The closing passages of the aforementioned “New Retrospective on My Fictions: Forty Notes” tell us something unfortunate. Though noting his many publications and two encyclopedia entries on his fiction, Kostelanetz, now just over 70, states that “there have been few reviews of individual books, no commercial contracts, no grants for fiction writing, only one passing mention in purportedly comprehensive surveys of contemporary fiction, little public acknowledgment of [his] alternative purposes in creating and publishing fiction. . . .” Perhaps some reasons for this relative neglect involve Kostelanetz’s lack of direct affiliation either with certain literary movements (rather than “groups”) of the last half century or with academics who influence critical reputation in the realm of avant-garde fiction. Sufficient explanations?

Kostelanetz asks plaintively, “Should anyone care (other than me)?” Blue and Yellow Dog Press, a new and extremely promising publisher of experimental writing, has provided us with an excellent opportunity to answer, “Hell, yes!"

Thomas Fink responds:
Grateful for Richard Kostelanetz’s generosity in making these comments, I’d like to reflect briefly on a few of them. I agree with him that both “boo” and “boom” should be heard in “boo/me/rang”; I was merely suggesting that different readers have different expectations and that the disruption of the expectations is a valuable part of the reading process of texts like his.  When I interpret the question, “Does not an encyclopedia of the world inhabit this sentence?” with the idea that “any reader can expand the range of identity and reference beyond self-referential strictures: Readers create a fragment of that encyclopedia,” Mr. Kostelanetz rightly notes that it’s hard to follow—especially the last clause. So, to be less elliptical, I’m trying to say that “this sentence” (any sentence) can be read by a large number of readers, that each of them “rewrites” the sentence into language that represents some part of the world, and that the imagined totality of such interpretations or rewritings can be conceived as an “encyclopedia of the world.” The author wonders whether my use of “self-reference” is an appropriate characterization of the group of sentences beginning, “This sentence refers to nothing beyond the words in this sentence.” Perhaps “self” could be confused with the human self, not, as I intended, language referring to itself (self-referentiality); therefore, I could speak instead of a metalinguistic quality or metatextuality or metarepresentation. When Mr. Kostelanetz counters my claims that judgments about the highest sentence quality are “absurdly subjective” with the notion that many people positively remembering particular sentences constitutes a “measurably objective assessment,” I find myself willing to drop the adverb “absurdly” and say that relative intersubjective consensus might count for a good deal, even if I don’t agree that it entails objectivity. His points and questions have sharpened my sense of his intentions and possibilities available for a reader’s encounter with the text.


Thomas Fink is the author of seven books of poetry, including Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011) and a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010).  His work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism, and in 2007, he co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. His paintings hang in various collections.

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