Contemporary “Experimental Literature” In America: Poets, Poetry, And Poetry Journals
by Clara B. Jones
As every writer knows, it is important to use words intentionally. However, the term, “experimental poetry,” is used variously in the literature and is difficult to define. Paul Stephens of Columbia University titled one of his papers, “What do we mean by 'literary' experimentalism?”, choosing to review uses of the term rather than to settle on a single definition. Stephens points out that several terms are employed interchangeably with “experimental literature,” especially avant garde and Postmodern [rejection of the previous periods' universal truths (e.g., humanism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, Fascism)], and I have noticed in my research that the term, “innovative,” has been used to describe experimental poets who are female. As a sub-title for one of my manuscripts, I have used the words, “exploratory poems,” to describe innovative pieces, a figurative substitute for the word, “experimental.”
Writing, primarily, about experimental poetry, Stephens states that, historically, “experimental literature” has been associated with Symbolism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Imagism as well as, other schools (e.g., Futurism, Bauhaus) and that the term, “experimental,” did not come into common usage until the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the word's diverse interpretations and uses, Stephens agrees with Ann Lauterbach that, “in the world of poetry, to be experimental is sometimes taken to mean you have...an aversion to form....” I suggest a more restrictive version of the previous statement—that literary experimentation exhibits an aversion to the aesthetics dominating mainstream standards at a given time (the “canon”), especially standards of form, language, and function.
Gertrude Stein as an exemplar of “experimental literature”
Speaking of Gertrude Stein and other experimental authors, Stephens asserts, “Writers like Stein...seek to confront us with massive blocks of information [e.g., “epic” poems] that...thwart what we traditionally expect from poetry as a formal expression of carefully crafted sound and meaning.” Using “conceptual” writing as an example, Stephens goes on to suggest that this form of experimental literature, in particular, poetry, “is not necessarily a careless literature,” contrary to some critics who have claimed that many experimental works are produced “arbitrarily.”
Scholar Natalia Cecire considers Stein's epic poems “unreadable” and “boring,” suggesting that “it is not scale but rather something about her style that is an impediment to reading; not the how much, but simply the how.”, particularly, Stein's penchant for “repetition.” Yet, consistent with the idea that experimental literature opposes mainstream standards, Cecire states that Stein's poetry challenges “the status of reading” and that other experimental writers (e.g., Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place) negate “the need for reading in the traditional textual sense.”
The latter comment is reminiscent of current experiments in American poetry whereby information technology (e.g., texting, Twitter, Facebook, video, music) intersect with conventional ways to use words, and the highly-regarded, young experimental poet and internet artist, Steve Roggenbuck, promotes the terms, “internet poetry,” “vlogging formats,” “essay film,” “collage poetry,” as well as other sub-genres for utilizing technology and text (“emergent poetry” in Roggenbuck's lingo). One might suggest additional ways of describing media poetry, such as, “cyber-poetry” or “cyborg-poetics;” “neo-poetry” or “neo-poetics;” or, “anti-poetry.”
“Text art,” related to “media poetry,” though, a simpler sub-genre, is famously represented by the work of African-American artist, [William] Pope.L (University of Chicago), producing stylized printing composed as highly provocative statements, usually, innovative phrases about race, class, or gender. These novel ways of conceptualizing poetry and other text require a new aesthetics, a project in progress judging by Stephens' recent publications, including, a book and critical articles in the journal, Convolution, which he edits.
A case study of contemporary “experimental poetry”: “video erasure poetry”
I encountered Claire Peckham's video-poem when reading an issue of the poetry journal, HOUND, a relatively new publication edited by Danielle Susi. The venue's webpage states, “We...tend to lean more toward experimental pieces and work that takes risks.” Based upon an e-mail interview with Claire, I learned that she is an artist in Seattle with a background in English (Creative Writing) and Photomedia, concentrating on “image and language.” More precisely, she said, “My work, among other things, is concerned with levels of perception and their intersections.”
Claire began illustrating and binding books when she was about nine, finding that “games were not worth playing without characters; imaginary adventures were not interesting without plot.” Upon entry into the creative writing program at University, Claire imagined a life of novel writing ahead of her, but “I found I had no knack for fiction,” she reported, “and found myself increasingly more and more interested in poetry. Eventually, I started saying, 'I am a poet' as often as I said, 'I am a writer.'”
I asked Claire to relay her process for creating, “Whispering Gallery,” the “video erasure poem” published in HOUND. She responded, “'Whispering Gallery' was the culminating project for the last photography class I took at university. It was a class dedicated to exploring and re-appropriating the concept of artist books (books made explicitly as works of art). The piece is visual art and poetry [as well as sound], though I would not call it performance art.”
I asked Claire to be more specific about her process, in particular, what she means by a “video erasure poem.” She replied that her use of the term is “literal” and that “Whispering Gallery” was created “by erasing words from found text,” specifically, entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She thinks of the poem as a combination of “poetry and visual art” [and sound] with video as the format and, I would suggest, using video as the vehicle for the experiment, though the mediation of text by technology might, also, be considered a form of facilitation or enhancement.
Claire's current project is another “video erasure poem” using text “from an ancient study on the distance at which something becomes invisible to the human eye [perception].” Claire's work is one of several sub-genres of contemporary experimental poetry, and readers interested in exploring the wide variety of these forms are referred to journals such as Posit, Inpatient Press, Otoliths, Experiential-Experimental-Literature, in addition to, HOUND and other venues (see below). In most of these journals one observes that the most common techniques and strategies utilize the manipulation of electronic technology, including, sound and music, with text, though Roggenbuck and others point out that other poetic/textual forms are “emerging.”
Experimental Literature concerns artistic function as well as form
Paul Stephens, referred to above, points out that experimental literature has political and social components. I conduct research on experimental poetry, and it seems clear to me that movements in this genre have often served as mechanisms of resistance and forms of protest against political and social ideologies and institutions, as well as, opposition to mainstream aesthetics. These tactics are often utilized by members of marginalized groups, some of whom have been political activists as well as artists (e.g., Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez).
Contemporary experimental movements have included the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, the San Francisco School, the New York School of Poetry, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E movement, and the Black Arts Movement. Women have been important participants in all of these initiatives, including, for example, the “innovative” poets Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Gloria Evangelina Anzaloúa, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Eileen Myles, and Alice Fulton. Among these female poets, Alice Notley's and Susan Howe's work has become part of the mainstream “canon,” suggesting, perhaps, that there may be a fuzzy line between what is conventional and what is “experimental” and that, as the Caribbean-British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has suggested, activities “at the margins” can impact the dominant, majority culture and, possibly, change it. In poetry, Allen Ginsberg might be a good example of Hall's theory and an interesting subject for research.
Finally, perhaps reflecting roles played by females as well as racial and ethnic minorities in experimental poetry projects, several active journals of experimental poetry have diverse editorial boards (e.g., Door Is Ajar, Counterexample Poetics, Rhizome, Winter Tangerine Review, Really System), and this phenomenon may differ significantly from the, purportedly, mostly white, mostly male, editorial boards of journals privileging formalist and other mainstream poetic forms (but see, for example, mastheads of the highly-regarded online mainstream poetry venues, Memorious and Blackbird, as well as the print journal, Prairie Schooner).
Possible differences between experimental and mainstream journals is a topic worthy of systematic investigation. The present article is intended to alert readers to the burgeoning sub-genres in contemporary experimental literature driven, primarily, by varied combinations of technology, text, visual art, and sound or music and is a call for reviewers of journals and books to focus on the creative experiments of these writers and publications, part of a new avant garde in literature.
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. She is a Staff Writer for the poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power, and her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues. Her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin' Kitsch Chapbook Competition. Clara studied with Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.