March 1st, 2011 / 12:54 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Bhanu Kapil}

Bhanu Kapil teaches in The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and at God(d)ard College.  She has a blog with a loyal following in Croatia, Mongolia, and Pakistan: “Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi? [A Day in the Life of a Naropa University Writing Professor].”  She has written four books: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press), and Schizophrene (forthcoming, Nightboat.)

Question #1

Experimental writing, as a category or concept, seems fraught with widespread confusion and misunderstanding.  How exactly would you describe “experimental writing”?  Or, to borrow a question from Kate Sutherland, “What’s Experimental about Experimental Writing?”

Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line? I am thinking of an exchange last year, in the comments section of the Harriet blog, with Pam Lu, in which she talked about a prose writing that represented not only trajectory, feral trajectory, but also: “the blocked flows of a global crossing.” Experimental prose, as a category, has allowed me to work out the texture notes of a sentence in a way that fiction, or even the essay, has not. Is this true? Perhaps the more useful question is: What is a sentence for? Could a sentence, as it’s written in English, function as a possible record of boundary “awards,” and of the carnage that follows such decisions? I think of semi-colons, for example, as a kind of scar tissue. Their reversed curvature as formal: the way they are moving in the opposite direction to the content or subject matter of the sentence. Towards what? What comes before, as registered, as marked, in the present, but delayed, so that memory, too, is held in another place. Which memory? The event of a prose work as its attractant. What precedes the category. In a shamanic or trauma theory model, the body streams towards the place where a scrap of it is held. In the butcher’s shop. On a hook. And so on. A recursion.

As I work out what an “embodied historiography” (Thom Donovan) might look like, I’m also trying to work on the experimental as an immigrant.

I’m an Indian writer writing in English, and yet, of course, after all this time, I am not, nor was I ever, either of those things: and so I want a form that lets me die. Be dead. Or lets me be a very black thing. That lets me let out an unearthly sound. That lets the sentence be the place where the dirt, or fractal matter, of the diasporic body: might adhere. This is the experiment: to build a chrysallis, or glass net, on every page. Not just the page. The garden. For: “Ban.”

Question #2

A few years ago,  Marjorie Welish wrote an article for Boston Review about Raymond Queneau, which she concluded by claiming, “Experimental writing is by definition its own adventure, a way characterized most definitely with error yet also with discovery and potential conceptual originality, which in time may well prove significant.”  If we accept Welish’s suggestion that experimental writing is inherently connected to error and discovery, how are readers to determine the success or failure of a particular work of experimental writing?  Without established criteria for evaluation, how can we differentiate between gold and copper?

I visited the Berkeley National Lab a couple of years ago, to interview John Dueber, a physicist-biologist working in the field of metagenomics. I loved it. I loved it so much I tried to lick a fridge when no-one was looking. In the lab, I asked questions about failure and experimentation, and wrote my findings up for the journal XCP. In short, when I asked Dr. Dueber to describe the lab process around an error, he replied: “We work in a duration, on multiple projects in parallel, and we push each one very hard. It takes a lot of time to develop a transparent approach to a problem, and in a way, we’re not interested in that. Everything takes so much longer than in other fields, so what we’re trying to do is get a look at something. Once we can see what it will be…once I can see what it will look like, I move on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In a way, it’s radically different to the handicraft approach…we’re trying to gather information as swiftly as we can, in these intermediate steps, so that we can store it for something else, for the work we really want to do. Which is design.” Me: “Design?” J.D: “Versioning. Like a tracking effort, so that we can be, like, okay, we want to build that, and we need this, this, this.” Me: “So, you’re more interested in selection than in production.” J.D: “Exactly. There’s a lot to do. This is the golden age of the experiment. There’s a huge amount of failure in everything we do.” Me: “Is that why the counters are so messy?” J.D: “[Laughing] No.” Me: “Hmm.”

This idea of versioning or sketching something, getting a glimpse of something then moving on, rapidly, is something I worked on for a recent Belladonna chaplet, produced for a prose event with Eileen Myles and Vanessa Place in DC, and curated by ZAMBRENO herself. The title of the chaplet: (a poem-essay: notes: for a NOVEL: Ban en Banlieues). “Poem-essay”: from Jena Osman. Her own The Network. Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard. The novel as always not yet written. And once again, the question of fragments and scraps — the dispersed text — and a model that moves forward on the “glimpse” rather than an informatics of lived time. Here, too, the intersections of trauma therapy (soft tissue/cranio-sacral bodywork, in particular) and narrative have been useful to me in working out an art that is built on sensation, or the absence of sensation, rather than the production of images. I think I always felt that the image was what would let the fragments recombine. All that color and saturation. But now I am more interested in the strange, overlapping arcs of a possible content: this quality of refraction, and speed, that Dr. Dueber describes above. The book that never arrives. The book that arrives as it is written. The intermediate book. The notebook-book. The scraps.

Question #3

In his book About Writing, Samuel Delany suggests that many writers (himself included) “no longer see experimental writing as a way to deal with [crisis] aesthetically” (226).  Does this sentiment ring true for you as well?

A healing crisis? A crisis in immigration policy? The crisis of the state? The crisis of social services and mental health care for immigrants? Those are the first crises that come to mind. In this sense, as I’ve tracked cross-cultural psychiatric research, I’ve encountered the research of Dinesh Bhugra and Kamaldeep Bhui around/towards: “subtle factors.” A schizophrenic breakdown in an Asian woman or Caribbean “youth” is more likely to be triggered by consistent low-level race factors, like eye-rolling exchanged between the cashier and another customer, when the person walks into the shop, than it is by major stressors like race riots, organized race violence, or even migration itself. And here, I return to the iterations of syntax as the place where I can work with that. Have that. In a work. Is this poetry? No. It’s what abrades the body as it’s being written, or lived, in a chronic way. Chronic rather than acute. And how can I, at the same time, attend to “chronicity” (Eleni Stecopolous): (to write): a “healing narrative?” From a new book by Peter Levine, the language of somatic experiencing, I’ve been thinking of how I might engage pendulation — the movement between different kinds of sentences (theory, autobiography and poetry, for example): as between: different parts of the nervous system. An experimental prose form lets me do this. It lets me write about the body in this way. It lets me touch something lightly many times.

Question #4

Given Amy King’s recent VIDA article on the under-representation of women in major literary publications, it seems extremely important to acknowledge the fact that gender issues continue to problematize the field of literature.  How would you characterize the relationship between women and experimental literature?

For me, everything about being an experimental writer in the U.S. is an improbable and extraordinary gift. The feminine monstrous is how I would describe what that is: a woman writing an experimental text, or reading one. I don’t want to fuck, I want to bifurcate! (I don’t normally talk like this. Plus: it might not be true.) As to the outer world, the commercial and community issues your question raises, I — how can I say this? — as for myself — and with the proviso that answering the question just for my own conditions and experience doesn’t approach what you are asking in this question — I don’t care. I live in a farmer’s cottage in the middle of nowhere. I cannot go home to my people in some fundamental way. In this sense, I don’t register the presence of my works in a larger context. I am an obscure Asian-American experimental prose writer, and unless I can pull it together, Jhumpa Lahiri-style, probably always will be. To put it another way, I am more aware of the larger obliterations. Girls and women culled before they are born, and, obviously, afterwards. If I have to think of what it means to be a woman writing in an experimental form in this country, then I think, more, of what it means to be in the company of other writers, writing. The vibration I feel when I am with other experimental women writers is very strong, and I want to live by this vibration, this joy, even if it’s completely imperceptible to others. Or doesn’t persist beyond the encounter. Even if it’s meeting Ariana Reines for the first time and letting her sniff me, and me sniffing her back; or meditating with Melissa Buzzeo in a botanical garden, so that the gold light between us is filled, too, with the writing to come. Afterwards, we bury our manuscripts for Schizophrene and The Devastation in the rose garden. Those are two recent examples. Magazines decay. Affinity does not. Juliana Spahr in her back garden in Berkeley, teaching me the word: “inflorescence.” And so on.

Question #5

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

The blogs of Kate Zambreno, Jackie Wang, Dodie Bellamy and Ariana Reines. They are re-wiring projects. They are excessive. They are about the body and for it. They are brave.

Melissa Buzzeo’s works: Face, What Began Us, For Want and Sound, and an unpublished work, The Devastation. Because they are written at the intersection of social justice, somatics and the question of aftermath. Because she sometimes wrote them at the same table as me, in a cafe. And because, with Melissa, there is an on-going conversation about flatness, in long, slow descriptions — of the jungle, of architecture — as a kind of particulate matter, a precursor to abrupt change.

Renee Gladman’s work has been so important to me. She was the first person who published my writing: a chapbook on her Leroy imprint. I don’t know. It’s obvious. The sentence is for writing and thinking.

Your question also prompts the faces of writers in-folding and bursting at readings of their own work. I grew to love these faces. My favorite works of experimental literature are the bodies themselves. My new idea is to lavish love on these writers whenever I meet them again, in the world. The same goes for the writers – – bloggers, poets — I mentioned above. And in this way: to open. Open to the archive of sense.


  1. Tantra Bensko

      for a writer, of any race or gender, to answer these questions from the heart, be open, creates a vulnerability that i really hope people will be kind to when writing these replies. it’s a great place for discussion of ideas. as long as that kindness is there deeply.

  2. home » turns out, no.

      […] from today a really great article/interview with Bhanu on htmlgiant re: What Is Experimental Literature? her answers are really wonderful and very much worth a read/comment. bhanu also an inspiration in […]

  3. Amy

      That comment was supposed to be in reply to Liz yesterday, but it went into spam. Thanks for fishing it out, Christopher.

  4. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Kent,

      Thank you for your comments.

      Yes, I am familiar with your Yasusada project. My wife & I both studied with Brian McHale at Ohio State, and in fact under his direction she wrote an as yet unpublished scholarly paper on Doubled Flowering.

      I will look in this direction to see what I can see. Thank you.

  5. Christopher Higgs

      Thank you for sharing the information about this panel, Amy. I’m excited to check out these videos!

  6. miette

      Thank you so much for posting this panel: there are few things more voyeuristically thrilling than watching people work it all out together. Very good work here…

      (And you’re lucky to have known Akilah, who will be much much missed).

  7. Kent Johnson

      Christopher, could you write me at ? Maybe I can run this paper by the editor of the book I mentioned. It may be too late, but would be willing to try, if your wife would be interested. McHale has an essay in the book, actually.

  8. Jack M

      So sorry, Bhanu, I did not mean to offend by my post. It’s just that I was so intent on absorbing what you were saying that those particular portions of the interview broke the flow of what I was reading and kicked me back to my own awareness of myself. Of course the word “nonsense” was inappropriate.

  9. Bhanu

      Thank you, Jack. I apologize, too, for my own strong language.

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