'Uncreative Writer' Retypes the 'New York Times' Poet Kenneth Goldsmith is a self-described "uncreative writer." For one of his books he retyped an entire edition of the New York Times, complete. He says writers don't need to write anything new, just "manage" the words that are already out there.
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'Uncreative Writer' Retypes the 'New York Times'

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'Uncreative Writer' Retypes the 'New York Times'

'Uncreative Writer' Retypes the 'New York Times'

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In the '60s, the 1960s, Andy Warhol made some provocative but fairly unwatchable films. He called one "Eat," in which a guy eats a mushroom really slowly for 45 minutes. In "Sleep," the guy sleeps for six hours. Guess what happens to the guy in "Hair Cut"? Mm-hm. And if you watch "Empire," you'll see the Empire State Building for eight hours. And by the way, he cheated. It was actually on a loop. He didn't film it for eight whole hours. It wasn't a short loop. It was a long one.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a poet who writes provocative but pretty unreadable books and he takes credit for that. There is the 2003 book, "Day," in which Goldsmith retyped an entire edition of the New York Times, including the ads. It's an 840-page book, and he recently completed a trilogy, "The Weather," "Traffic" and "Sports." It was from 24-Hour News WINS, I believe, and "Sports" was an entire rebroadcast of the Yankees game. I hope Jeter got a home run in that one. I don't know what happened. But Kenneth Goldsmith not only joins us in the studio, but it turns out we went to the same elementary school. How are you, Kenneth?


A special small-world moment.

Mr. KENNETH GOLDSMITH (Author, Poet): Fine. Lovely, thank you.

PESCA: Small-world moment. You know, this is what you don't - this is what you - whenever you get an artist in and he does something a little weird, you don't want to ask it, but you have to. Why? Why? Why? Is there a bigger - there has to be a bigger point to transcribing the Times and these radio shows.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, they say life is very short.

PESCA: They do.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: But it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSMITH: It's enormously long, and you've got to fill up the time somehow. And you know, I'm kind of a bored guy with a lot of time on his hands. So, I just retype existing texts.

PESCA: And what do you expect people to do with those texts?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, I certainly don't expect them to read them. I mean, I - you know, authors want to be read. I'm the type of author that says you don't have to read these books, the first poet that actually admits that the books need not be read. And instead, I would rather have a thinkership (ph) than a readership.

MARTIN: What are the thoughts that are supposed to be provoked by this?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, probably exactly, why does one do something like this? You know, the conversation around the work is always much more interesting than the work itself.


Mr. GOLDSMITH: So I let you off the hook. I say, you don't have to read these books. You can just think about them.

PESCA: Does - do you know if anyone does read the books?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, I'm told people do. And people tell me that it's quite an engrossing and, quote, transcendent experience to read them. But I don't read them. I get bored.

MARTIN: Well..

PESCA: But you type them. I mean, you - was it did you go into a trance, fugue-like state? As you typed it?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Yeah, this is partly - this is a meditation.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely. I mean, it's retyping long documents for a year, you get very high, doing something like that.

MARTIN: Are you a good typist?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: I've become a wonderful typist. Thank you for asking. I think it's the one thing that people really should learn is to touch type.

MARTIN: I myself am a very good typist.

PESCA: Really?


(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right. How many words a minute?

MARTIN: Seventy-five. Is that good?

PESCA: Wow. That's very good. I think it's good.

MARTIN: Anyway, I digress.

PESCA: Do you know what your rate is?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: If I had some money, I would put you to work for me.

MARTIN: I'm serious. Typing when you get in the grove, it's very meditative.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: It really is.

MARTIN: It's very Zen.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: This is what everybody does, all day long, every day, is move information from one place to another. Some of us call that writing.

MARTIN: So you've just taken this to another level.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Yeah. I've decided to call the mundane activity of typing, writing, an art.

PESCA: Do you think that the thing that you're doing is not that much different from the thing that the person who originally wrote the article in the New York Times was doing?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Oh, it's completely different. The person that wrote the article, or wrote the newspaper did it for a specific purpose, to be read on a specific day and to be discarded forever. My job is purposeful - less - purposelessness, purposelessness.

MARTIN: Purposelessness.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: So when you take something that is extremely purposeful and then render it useless, it becomes art. What else can it possibly be?

PESCA: Well, it's got to be called something. And of course, art is also based on the intention of the artist. So if you're telling me it's art, I'm willing to believe that it's art. Do you have some of this art with you? Do you have any of your works? Perhaps "Weather" or "Traffic" or "Sports"?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Yes, yes. I mean, we have some of each.

MARTIN: Let us hear from one.

PESCA: By the way, in terms of the Yankee game, when - what game was that, that you did for "Sports"?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, it was actually the longest nine-inning Yankee - the longest nine-inning game on record. From August 18, 2006 it was the second of a double header at Fenway.

MARTIN: So you're a masochist. You chose that one on purpose?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSMITH: You know, I know nothing about sports, but I did "Traffic," which is a day's worth of traffic reports, a 24-hour news cycle every ten minutes. I did "Weather," which is, the weather ten - the one-minute weather reports from 1010 WINS for an entire year. And then I had to do "Sports." Now, I know nothing about sports, but I have a friend who's a Yankee's fan. He said, you must retype this game. You must transcribe this game. It's the best one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSMITH: So, I did.

PESCA: And as far as "Traffic" goes, you grew up in the New York area, so you've probably - I mean, it does become poetry after awhile, phrases like "bumper to bumper on the BQE," and "stop and go on the Gowanus."

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely.

PESCA: And the Raritan Toll Plaza takes on this almost, like, iconic sheen. If you ever go through the Raritan Toll Plaza, you say, I've heard this a million and a half times on the radio, now here I am. It kind of seems like a toll plaza, but in a way, it's like Mecca or Medina.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, we've never - you know, I mean, if we could take the language that's around us, the very mundane language that's around us, and actually somehow have a way to frame it as being poetry, then suddenly it's not so bad.

MARTIN: I want to hear some.

PESCA: Can we get you to read a little?


PESCA: And before you read...

(Soundbite of tickertape)

PESCA: Would this help, a little tickertape in the background?

(Soundbite of tickertape)

MARTIN: You can tell him no. You can tell him no.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: He sounds more like a beat-boxer, but not a very good one.

(Soundbite of tickertape)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of news wire)

PESCA: All right, I'll stop.

MARTIN: Stop, Mike. OK, please. Go ahead.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: (Reading) Well, this is from six p.m. and probably the easiest way, ah, to talk about the East River right now from the Triborough Bridge on down to the Battery Tunnel is just to tell you what's moving, and what moving is the Manhattan Bridge going to Manhattan. Everything else right now is going to be slow ride, no matter which way you go, including the Triborough which is picking up a bit more traffic at this point.

FDR Drive, you're jammed off the Brooklyn Bridge up to the 40s with an accident. Southbound delays, Triborough, pretty much all the way down to the Battery. And now, ah, West Side Highway is horrible. You've got delays going south, and this delay goes way past Chelsea Piers all the way down to the Battery. Yesterday it took somebody well over two and a half to three hours to cut through traffic like that. So budget at least two hours to use the West Side going south.

And now, ah, interior avenues in the 40s and 50s, still a mess going east to 9th Avenue, and ah, as you make your way across the Hudson, uh, through, uh, Lincoln Tunnel slower than the Holland Tunnel back to Jersey, there is a lot of 40th Street back traffic back to the Lincoln Tunnel right now. GW Bridge, don't bother. The upper level's got to be over half hour, lower level not nearly that much.

Palisades Parkway, approach would be better on the Deacon South. We still have a stalled bus on by Willis Avenue in the right lane, and ah, the troubles on the Cross Island now at Queens at Hempstead turnpike, tractor trailer wandered on and that's along the right side. As we've been saying, alternate side parking will be back in effect for tomorrow.


MARTIN: Whoa, I love the alternate side parking part.

PESCA: You know what's funny about that, as we're live now at 8:50, all that's true. Right now, they're definitely jam-packed on the FDR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You could just put that on a loop, and play that at every weekday at around 8:50.

MARTIN: I love that you also transcribe the ums and ahs. That's really - that's very detail oriented.

PESCA: When you're doing a reading, if you add an uh, do you feel bad that you violated the original text?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely nobody knows.

PESCA: Oh, yeah, that's true.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: I have no close readers. Nobody's following along with the text.

PESCA: You did the - "Day" is a transcription of an entire copy of the New York Times. The year was 2000. It was September 1st of 2000. And when you transcribed it, you read it left to right, even though the Times is sometimes meant to be read in column form. Is that right?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, my practice isn't uncreative, I'm an uncreative writer.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: To read across columns would be too creative.


Mr. GOLDSMITH: And so the greatest constraint is to actually retype the entire newspaper without being creative.

PESCA: I see. So...

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Just retype it.

PESCA: So that would have been an artistic choice to go.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely, absolutely. I'm opposed to artistic choices.

PESCA: So were you trying - making some sort of statement of the meaninglessness of the Times? Or for that day, was it meaningful, and you made it meaningless?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, I mean, what happens when you basically take a hierarchical newspaper that's laid out completely in columns and fonts with certain things having more prominence than others, and reduce the entire thing to a 900-page text document, there's no italics, there's no bold, there's nothing. It's simply - it's simply a raw text document.

PESCA: Are you familiar with the works of either James Horner or Paul Yeager or William A. Owens?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: I've never heard of any of them.

PESCA: OK, those were all guys who were mentioned in the newspaper that day. There was an obit of Paul Yaeger, who was a mediator in labor strikes. James Horner had a profile about him. He's a composer. And William A. Owens was the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from '94 to '96 and he wrote an op-ed for the Times that day. So I guess it, well, it's more than it didn't stick with you.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely not. I love the idea that I can be surprised by my own words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDSMITH: I can pick up a page of any of my books and not know what's on it.

PESCA: I read the newspaper for that day in preparation for this interview. There was some great stuff there. Like Rudi Giuliani was said to be mellowing after his cancer, and he didn't really think he'd do any politics after that. It is kind of a document of a bygone era.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: No, I mean, I'm saying that I have written the greatest book that has ever been written. It's got love. It's got hate. It's got war. It's got peace. It's got triumph. It's got tragedy. It's got rape, murder and victory. I mean, it's got it all in there without me having to have invented anything.

PESCA: Well, good job.

MARTIN: Good job!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Are you allowed to make money on that?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Absolutely not. Poets don't make money! What kind of question is that?

PESCA: I guess you're allowed, though.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: I tried to get sued by the New York Times. I sent them a copy hoping they'd sue me, but in fact, I think they grabbed and they looked at it, and they said this is some lunatic and they threw it in the recycling bin.

PESCA: Did they say, explicitly say, and we will not be profiling you again?

Mr. GOLDSMITH: They've never profiled me.


PESCA: They're certainly not interested.

MARTIN: Well, we're glad we did.

PESCA: I liked it. Poet and uncreative writer Kenneth Goldsmith. Thank you very much, Kenneth.

Mr. GOLDSMITH: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks for coming in. That does it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project. We don't go away online. We're there all the time, npr.org/bryantpark. My name is Rachel Martin.

PESCA: And I am Mike Pesca, and this was the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Take a note and write a transcript.

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