by Larissa Shmailo
In a world threatened by climate change, teetering economies, and war, the landscape of experimental poetry (or poetries) in the 21th century is responding with its traditonal stance of épater/engager by any-and-every means possible le bourgeois, and challenging every lexical and hyperlexical convention. But is it a contracting or expanding universe, and is it the same universe as ours, or a parallel one, or one that does not even glance at our own? What does experimental poetry seek, if it seeks at all, today?
Today, Poetry magazine has opened its doors to poets who may not have found a home there previously, publishing the likes of Charles Bernstein, Forrest Gander, and Rae Armantrout. But is experimental poetry a luxury enterprise, to be coopted by the mainstream? Or is it to be supplanted by the spoken word heritors to the folk and protest song? Or is it the very heart of an art which can provide a new thinking we can bring to our problems and perceptions?
In the 21st century, overlapping sites of activity in experimental poetry have emerged: Charles Bernstein delineates some of the movements: “Multilectical, site-specific/fieldwork; conceptual/flarf; ecopoetics; constraint-based (constructivist) work, ESL (writing in English by those from non-English regions, via web-intensified global affinity clusters); poetry in programmable media; and sound/performance in/as recording (especially the use of digital sound archives such as PennSound and UbuWeb). Newly emerging in the broad area of “bent poetics” are disability and the defamiliar body, identity formations as textual medium, nude formalism, “junk space,” ambiance, sprung lyric, mixed/syncretic poetic genre, modular prose, and ongoing collaborations with music and the visual arts. “
Sharon Mesmer states: “The most important trends/contributions are probably aligned to the Language-based multiplicities, where the reader was as much of a participant in the poem as the poet, and the strategy-based borrowings, where a foundation was laid that allowed the poet to relinquish hierarchical control, being inflected by humor and the slight return to narrative.”
The late Carol Novack, the publisher of Madhatter’s Review commented, “The landscapes I find most intriguing are populated by poetic writers playing with ‘theatrical play/dialogue,’ ‘narrative,’ digital technological forms, interweaving, connecting, and contrasting text (read or recited)with music and visual art , words unloosened from fetters to formulaic versions of poetic paradigms, writers stretching their wings in collaboration with artists of other genres, or attempting various genres within the same project.”
And what does all this mean to experimental poetry’s writers / readers / audience / victims / perpetrators / partners?
Bernstein speaks to the need for poetry’s constant motion, like a shark per Woody Allen’s definition of a growing love relationship in Annie Hall. Poetry, says Bernstein, is “always moving beyond the ‘experimental’ to the untried, necessary, newly forming, provisional, inventive. Innovation is not so much something you can map as that which resists those maps.” Bernstein often states: “Poetry is a fertilizer, not a tool,” a groundbase for “moving beyond experiment to textual action.”
Geoffrey Gatza, editor of the experimental press BlazeVox Books, comments on the umbrella of writing that is experimental, or what Ron Silliman would term “post-avant,” saying, “There is no grouping or school of poets working towards a goal in experimental writing… Each writer is… reluctant to be a part of one group working towards one idea.” Gatza, whose press includes an eclectic mix of today’s experimental voices, adds, that as always, “The experimental is open to its successes and it is open to glorious failures in the most exciting of ways, ways that traditional poetry can only sound like a beginning violinist attacking a violin.”
Editor Jeff Hansen, formerly of the web-based Experimental Poetry and Fiction, and now the online journal and blog Altered Scale, speaks about computer poetry and Issue 1, the Dada-esque sendoff of poetic vanities and one of the best examples of search engine optimization techniques of 2008. In it, Jim Carpenter’s poetry algorithm, Erica T. Carter (ETC), wrote and published an anthology of “new work” by 4,000-plus leading poets. Says Hansen: “Issue 1 is a wonderful work (and) it’s provenance as poetry is not in dispute. Loss Glazier would say if Language is code, then Code should be treated as language… It is all very exciting, the anger, the congratulations, and the other forms this discussion has taken. And no matter the outcome, it gets poets talking who may not have reason to talk before.”
Mesmer notes that today, using the Internet, communities of writers can now function as “temporary autonomous zones.” (TAZ is a term coined by Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey in his book of the same name, meaning “temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control”). Mesmer says: “We think of writing communities (the Beats, the New York School Poets, Black Mountain – you name ‘em) as groups of poets who hung out together physically in bars, bookstores, cafes, all-night diners, etc… But now, as the flarf collective has proven, they can exist in cyber-space as well, where poets communicate and collaborate as they do in temporal- space. This, of course, both adds and subtracts a dimension from the experimental toolbox.”
The Flarf movement, less a school or a set of poets, and more of a method with an end game in sight, includes Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Kasey Mohammad, Rodney Konekee, Michael Magee, and Mesmer. Mesmer explains that the Flarf collective “has used the opportunities afforded by technology to continue Language’s non-hierarchical narrator impulse by using debased Internet language to create poems and thus accomplish two things via technology: taking on narrators that even we ourselves might not embrace, thus truly eluding the formal control structures of our own personal choices.”
Speaking to the use of technology in experimental poetry, Bernstein notes that “the several-thousand-years-old alphabet remains our fundamental technology, with the printing press creating a seismic change some 500 years ago. In the last 150 years we are living in the age of electronic/digital reproduction (tape recorders, radio, typewriters, computers, the internet), which changes the function of poetry in and for the culture, and so everything about poetry.” However: “This is not a choice an individual poet makes but a condition we all are in. And much of the most interesting poetry of the past 150 years, and the past year, reveals the technological unconscious of our time and space.” With Star Trek’s Borg, Bernstein warns that, to these movements, “Resistance is futile.”
Novack added, “I see the looming present future as a melting pot of voices disrobed of the tired necessity of typecasting and classification. I embrace multimedia events and online journals that promote authors who play with amazing evolving technology as if it were clay, who utilize the new communicative forms the Internet offers.”
Daniel Nester of Soft Skull Press takes issue with Bernstein’s discussions of “official verse culture” and Ron Silliman’s “grabbing people’s eyeballs” with the notion of post-avant and the School of Quietude. “These poets and others aren’t the first to make their mark by setting up other perceived aesthetics as straw man counterarguments. But that doesn’t mean it advances the art of poetry in any way.” Nester reiterates Wallace Stevens’ statement that “all poetry is experimental…if it is lively, if it is doing its job; poetry presents new coinages, mindsets, shorthands, portmanteaus, neologisms… Twitter poets are the new haiku. Can you say what you want to say in 140 characters or fewer? There’s your new variable foot!”
It has often been noted that experimental poetry speaks to change and uncertainty, also a current in Modernism. Which, as Sharon Mesmer points out, begs the question: Has nothing really changed since Modernism? Mesmer continues: “And if Modernism reflected/spoke to uncertainly, instability, fracturedness, and we’re now supposed to be getting past all that (if only because “been there, done that”) — what comes next? Certainty, cohesiveness, stasis? I don’t think so, since the basic state of humanity is not those things. But I do think there is a general impetus to heal, remake and renew right now, and so it’ll be interesting to see how poetry will roll with those ideas.”
Mesmer concludes, “The 21st century landscape seems to be a post-everything territory, fertile with possibility.” She concludes: “Whatever that New Thing’s going to be we can’t really know at this point, but it’s safe to say it will carry the indelible stamp of whatever came before but with a mind to completely redefining it (which has always been poetry’s way anyway).
Note: these interviews were conducted in 2009, and the opinions of the interviewees may well have morphed, as experimental poetry does each day, month, and year. However, this archeology of contemporary seekings in word, sight, sound, material, time, and space still has descriptive value, and is submitted in that spirit. It is not meant to trample or ignore any seedlings of the past four years.
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Larissa Shmailo is a poet and translator whose latest poetry collection is In Paran (BlazeVOX) http://www.amazon.com/In-Paran-Larissa-Shmailo/dp/1935402102 and latest spoken word CD is Exorcism http://www.facebook.com/LarissaShmailoPoetryandProse/app_155326481208883
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