My ‘Avant-Garde Card’: Five Aesthetic Categories

by A.J. Carruthers

For Pam B., Michael B., Fiona H. & Justin C. 

In this final blog post I want us to all get making. To get into the spirit of active experimentation, I want to share some personal writing practices here in the form of five achievable aesthetic categories: stale, flat, daggy, austere, and vaporous.

These “categories” are also primers for writing. At the end of each section there are exercises to try.

To speak about aesthetic categories in poetry is to issue a pragmatics of the experimental writing process. These primers are pragmatic and constructivist. Sianne Ngai, in introducing the aesthetic examples in her 2005 book Ugly Feelings, notes that they “tend not to be drawn from the more recognizably ’emotional’ genres [including lyric poetry]―to which literary critics interested in such matters have traditionally turned” (10). Ngai points to the book’s preference for “‘constructivist’ rather than ‘expressivist’ forms as ideal sites for examining the social and symbolic productivity of emotion in general” (10).

The five aesthetic categories here point to ways of writing which might (or might not) engender or result in hypnotic, highly ambient or emotive reading experiences, but involve no emotional requirement on the part of the poet who constructs them.

In recent work on the long poem AXIS (2014-) and in non-AXIS writing I’ve been able to construct systems which involve no emotional expression. Through an adherence to strict discipline comparable to that of a scribe, stenographer or manuscript illuminator―one can still get bored in the margins, such a “Trappist” sensibility has taken considerable time & effort―I’ve been able to finally eliminate all forms of personal expression. Daunting as it may sound, this is something that has become pleasurable in unexpected ways.

When teaching or telling people about these methods I’ve been asked: but don’t you lose something when you forgo self-expression? Not at all. My reply is that one in fact gains. One’s horizon infinitely expands. By withholding the immediacy of expression to conduct procedure, one is able to create bodies of work that open out to the fractal indeterminacy of the world and perhaps the universe. By removing oneself from the picture as much as possible, one begins to access the clarity of systems, to usher in new kinds of language into the poem.

These are not practices that should ever be imposed upon anybody … just an enticement to enter the endless blazing worlds that become available to one willing to try them.

Think of them as recipes, or menus. There are five, so you might think of them as the five lines of a “score.” Play them. Get going on the stale, daggy, flat, austere, and the vaporous!


  1. Stale


Dehydration in goods prone to going stale (subject to the process of “staling”) causes loss of PROFIT, decline in VALUE or USE (with the exception of items like croutons, which are made using stale bread, thus making value from the staling process). For most, the word stale spells irritation. The use-by-date is a TIME-LIMIT. I might have always considered staling an unfavorable thing had I not, in 2011, encountered the Combines of Robert Rauschenberg and George Herms. Yellowing paper, brownish surfaces. STAIN and DIRT. From then on, the meaning of the word changed. Stale began to mean a certain type of aesthetic, a defiant NO to gloss.

What is a stale poem? A stale poem is a poem that isn’t fresh, or rotten, but in between. Temporal distention, delayed valuation. You hear stale time in Pam Brown in the poem “Not really ready”: “biscuits, near stale,/five a.m.” (Missing Up, 50).

Remaindered, devalued goods as fodder for poetic material. Not glossy. Old books, old ideas. Ideas out of favour.

Bread is one of the most perishable of foodstuffs. This is not true in the physical sense. Bread does not quickly lose its nutritive value of become unfit for food. But it is true in a commercial sense. Consumers will invariably choose fresh bread in preference to bread that has lost its freshness, and frequently refuse absolutely to purchase any but clearly fresh bread. Retail dealers therefore find stale bread, often bread only a day old or even less, practically unsalable.

Failure of the baker to maintain a nice adjustment of output to daily requirements results in quantities of unsold bread which cannot be marketed on a par with the freshly baked product. This bread can be sold only at a considerable reduction in price, for human food; or at a still greater reduction, for animal feed or other uses. This unsold or “stale” bread easily becomes a leading source of financial loss to the baking industry, running into millions of dollars a year.


Exercise 1: Purchase a loaf of bread. Watch the bread go stale and as you do, record what happens to it. Cease writing when it goes mouldy or if it is damp enough to rot.


Exercise 2: Plagiarise text from an old book (preferably pre-1950) with staling pages and rework it so it becomes your own poem (if it’s very old it’ll be out of copyright, if you’re worried). Look for books about defunct, “stale” practices, like bibliotics or graphoanalysis (consult Use images from its yellowed pages as inserts into your piece.


  1. Flat


The word flat comes from Old Norse, flatr, also Saterland Frisian flot (“smooth”). In the visual arts, flatness has played a profound role. There has been the flattening out of minimalism and. more recently, the art movements Superflat and SoFlo Superflat. Can the same be done in poetry? Pam Brown has written perhaps one of the signature flat poems, “Even So” which reads in part:

(Missing Up, 116)


Exercise 3: Make a group with open membership. Call yourselves The Flattists. Encourage members to only write “flat” poetry.


Exercise 4: Write a flat poem. Eliminate all depth, esp. personal depth. Try to achieve flatness in form and content. Write a poem describing different kinds of bricks, in one-dimension. Use Emojis, other kinds of “flat” forms. Whatever you do, don’t try to give it “layers.”


Exercise 5: Write a poem using these words: regular, gain, obtain, retain, outright, obligation, emotionally, mechanism, moreover, vivacity, experience, the, suddenly, vehemence, combination, gelid, and strobile.


  1. Daggy


This aesthetic category was invented by the poet Michael Farrell. “Daggy” is Australian slang, for “uncool, unfashionable, but comfortably so.” You might wear “daggy” footwear that go for comfort rather than look. You might listen to “daggy” music, a “daggy disco track.”

I’ve a special affection for early net art and Hypertext work. It can often be terribly daggy, but in the best way. Let’s face it, experimental poetry is often daggy, intended or not.

So we need to own it. Turning daggy into an intentional craft means to own daggy.

Be uncool. Be scruffy. Be unstylish.


Exercise 6: Write a visual poem using Microsoft Paint. Don’t make it neat. Draw a shape or a word then use the bucket function to colour around the shape or word. Notice, and emphasize, the pixelated glitches that appear when you use the bucket function. Use “obvious” language in the body of the poem.


Exercise 7: Write a daggy poem. Doesn’t have to be “good.” Go to a reading with an open mic and shout it as loud as you can into the microphone. Nobody will notice the “quality” of the poem. Fun, loud, popular: experimental!


Exercise 8: We often forget that poetry is largely written on computers with Microsoft Word, and uses fonts. Often published poems get their fonts standardised. Write a decorative poem using “embarrassing” fonts, fonts that don’t usually get used:

Exercise 9: This exercise is Jas H. Duke’s poem, entitled “NED NASAL”: “Australians are often sneered at for talking thru their noses. Make this into a virtue. Keep your mouth shut and let all the sound come out your nose. Volume will be low so you will probably need amplification. Don’t open your mouth.” (Poems of War & Peace, 130)


  1. Austere


The scribal in poetics. The difficult task. The painstaking procedure over long swathes of time, lifetimes. Poetry as duty, commitment. The austere … one of my favourite aesthetic categories.

In recent work I’ve become increasingly austere, in direct ratio to an increased happiness in my life. In Ode to On Kawara I used a reading-through method that was a mixture of Mac Low’s diastic and what I have called “chorastic” method (see below), writing one poem every morning over a period of 4 months in 2015. In Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh I fed language from a book on Australian birds into 100 or so plates between 2015 and 2016.

There are art-historical threads to follow here, from the brickwork paintings of Maria Taniguchi to the date paintings of On Kawara, Hanne Darboven’s austere repetitious wall-works, Agnes Martin’s series of “empty” paintings and gridwork, to Tehching Hsieh’s yearlong works of persistence and duty. The practice of austerity in the arts has a rich history that poetry might benefit from.

The austere is an aesthetic but also an attitude. Once, when sitting on a beach with the poet and dear friend Fiona Hile on a relaxing holiday, we began talking about the ocean, and she asked whether I could ever write about the ocean. I responded by saying that yes I could, but first I’d have to speak to an oceanographer, then to somebody who had lived there for many years and had local knowledge. By the time I had spoken to all the people who knew about the ocean I probably would have given up trying to write something from my perspective: I’d much rather see what they had written, and maybe quote them instead.

When you write an austere work, try listening to liturgical music. Or the symphonies of Gloria Coates, works of difficult music than span 2-3-4 hours like those of Morton Feldman.


Exercise 10: Try plagiarhythm. Doing purposeful, clever plagiarism is a good thing & healthy for poetics (let’s call it procedural citation). For plagiarhythm try to replicate the “rhythms” of the source text, or create your own rhythms out of the original. Remember to never apologize for it. If anything, proudly tell people about it. If you get caught, do it again, and again, until people are bored of trying to find out if you plagiarized or not. Of course, find new and different ways to conduct procedural citation than just copying a friend’s poem to win a prize. Adopt it seriously, as a lifelong practice.


Exercise 11: The spontaneous acrostic method. Select a source text that isn’t very long (no more than a paragraph). Write the paragraph out vertically downwards, one letter per line. Now get into the mood and spontaneously write a poem downward from those letters. The only restriction is the first word of each line has to begin with that letter. Notice each letter becomes a “stanza.” Jackson Mac Low used a method similar to this in Stanzas for Iris Lezak (1971).


Exercise 12: Distant writing. We know about Franco Moretti’s distant reading, and the critical tools it gives us. But what about distant writing? Write a poem that functions like “filler text,” like lorem ipsum. Make it look from a distance like it’s a poem, but when one does close reading, one realizes it’s something else.


Exercise 13: The versificator. Invent a metrical machine whereby you can generate poems that look and sound like G.M. Hopkins’ “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” (1884-1886). Add DIACRITICS to words where you want to stress them. Steampunk prosody.


Exercise 14: The chorastic method. First, take one word from each line of somebody else’s poem or piece of prose, going down. Lay these words out as a sentence from left to right. Now, do the opposite: take every 3rd word of each line of that same text, lay these down vertically (so you get several “columns” of text). This way you get a vertical and horizontal “snapshot” of the source text.


  1. Vaporous


From complex geometries and textual matrices to pure gas. The poem dissipates, vanishes…

A contemporary poem is between gas and code. As airy as fibrous.

What would it like to write the poetic equivalent of Vaporwave music? What would it be like to write a poetry with softened edges, in which the words are vaporous, turn to gas, fizzle up before your reading eyes and ears only to dissipate into the background?

What would it be like to write background poetry, in a similar sense to what we know as background music?


Exercise 15. Write “background poetry” which suspends the reader in an ambient space of indeterminate dimensions. Use no punctuation & try to keep its textures smooth so as not to “disturb” the reader.


Exercise 16: Write a “nature” poem. But instead of writing it from your perspective, try to mirror the complex operations of ecology in the poem. For instance, say you write a poem about a cloud. Try not to begin with “I look through the window/I see a cloud”…rather, try to understand the cloud in itself. Avoid using “I.” Access information (articles, data etc.) about the type of cloud and incorporate this material into your poem. Don’t use “poetic” language, allow other kinds of language (scientific, descriptive) into the body of the poem. Given how complex the patterns of ecology are, show this in the form and the patterns of the poetry. Try more complex geometries. Break the line. Break words up or scatter them into fractal patternings. Make words vaporous.


Most of all: have fun!                                                                          Love, aj. 2017.