(excerpted from Seen of the Crime. Snare 2011 / ubu editions 2012)

For May 2010, Robert Fitterman hosted a storefront facility in New York City’s Bowery that sold nothing but words. Rob’s Word Shop was open Tuesdays and Thursdays May 5th through May 27th 11AM to 2PM selling single letters for 50 cents and words for 1 dollar a piece.

Clients were invited to request letters and words and specify which typeface (typed or handwritten, in printing or cursive) in which they would like those words produced. Fitterman then created the requested letters, words, phrases and sentences to the clients’ specifications, produced an invoice and commercial documentation and completed the sale. All requests and conversations were recorded and all purchases were obsessively detailed—fodder for Fitterman’s next book. Fitterman also allowed for mailorder requests and posted daily updates on his fledgling company’s success at robswordshop.blogspot.com.

Needless to say, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to participate in a venture that stands the traditional writing-publishing model on its head. I placed an email order for the penultimate sentence from Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener: “On errands of life these letters speed towards death.” I dutifully sent Fitterman a cheque for $9US and promptly received an envelope containing the requested sentence handwritten horizontally across a standard sheet of paper rubberstamped and signed by Fitterman. Accompanying the sentence was an itemized invoice stamped KEEP THIS SLIP 34 FOR YOUR REFERENCE and a typed alternative setting of the same sentence (no charge).

At the outset of Melville’s novella, Bartleby is a model employee, highly praised by his superiors. Bartleby soon refuses to participate in any of the expected duties of his office and of Capitalist society. Bartleby begins to respond to demands that he dutifully execute his role as scrivener (handcopying business documents) with the phrase “I would prefer not to.” This lack of participation soon spreads to all aspects of Bartleby’s life and he eventually dies, preferring not to eat.

I requested that particular sentence as conceptual poets adopt Bartleby the Scrivener as a stylistic forerunner of conceptual writing. Conceptual writing “prefers not to” engage with the expectations of writing, as it is traditionally defined. Eschewing traditional formulations of literature, conceptual writing, echoing “Bartleby,” consists of works that are unreadable, unsellable, unreviewable and that are ultimately outside of traditional definitions.

Fitterman, with Rob’s Word Shop, was a writer who refused to write. He welcomed the position of ‘scrivener’ preferring to not express any of his own creativity. Instead of accepting commissions for creative writing, Fitterman merely transcribed words at his costumer’s request and charged them for a task they could have easily accomplished without intercession. Ironically, given the sales of poetry (especially that of avant-garde poetry), Fitterman’s Word Shop probably “moved more product” than many poets.

If Rob’s Word Shop is any indication, readers today do not want to purchase poetry; they would rather purchase their own words sold back to them at a profit.

Rob’s Word Shop can be ordered from Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse.

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