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June 23rd, 2011 / 11:44 am
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What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Johannes Göransson}

Johannes Göransson is the author of four books – Dear Ra, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”), and Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate – and the translator of several more – most recently Johan Jönson’s Collobert Orbital and Aase Berg’s With Deer. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame and edits Action Books and the online journal Action, Yes, and he blogs at montevidayo.com.

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

While I think this series of questions has been really interesting and has opened many useful discussions, I should say that I have some reservations about the phrase “experimental” writing. [Footnote]

1. The Body:

When I die you need not bury me at all, just hang me up on that pig-meat wall. I love pig meat. The body has always been important to aesthetics. Let me tell a possibly false history of aesthetics: it used to be that the heart was a kind of symbol, but once we started performing heart-surgeries we found out that the heart was more like a pump than a symbol. Art might not be some kind of transcendent experience but a physical event.

Let me tell you a story about being an immigrant. When I first came to this country, I was assaulted by kids my age (beaten up tackled into lockers etc) and teachers (suspended for this and that, such as for being beaten up) because of the way I looked (tall hair, leather boots, pink backpack, black clothes, what can I say I loved The Cure) and talked and the way I walked (apparently I have a very stylized way of walking). We live in a culture where Art has to be contained, even (or perhaps most of all) when it’s in the “unnatural” (ie Artful) way someone walks or talks. The immigrant has such a shoddy body. The immigrant is fake, kitsch, a double. The immigrant makes a lie of “natural.” The immigrant’s body is worst of all for this reason. If art makes the stone more stoney, the immigrant makes the stone more Art (everybody must get stoned). The immigrant belongs in a wax museum.

Part of why I love theater and performance is the way it forces the viewer/reader to see the actual bodies as art, rather than the inverse. One of the most fascinating experiences I’ve head as a writer was when a group of folks acted out a variety show called “The Widow Party” that I had written (while in a dazed state, recovering from a car-crash and watching a documentary about the Civil Rights era). So that’s what I’ve been writing lately (My latest book, Entrance to the colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, is about that. Crimes have to be committed in order to perform the piece.).

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

2. Is Art political?

I think politics should be beautiful. Part of the politics of art is in its mimicry; it makes doubles, counterfeits, fakes. It makes a costume drama in which categories are tested (so much of the rhetoric I can’t stand – rigor, form, value – seems aimed at limiting that costume). Part of the politics of Art is that it makes a wound in our culture. The key is not to try to close that wound. The key is to remain homeless.

Artifice is associated with Evil. I’m just now as I type this watching “The Lion King” with my daughter and her cousin. My daughter wants to be batman and her cousin wants to be a princess. But this movie suggests that artifice is unnatural, associated with Death and Evil. The original Lion King appears at the beginning of the movie in a position of authority to present his son while the soundtrack sings “cycle of life.” The royal, authoritative order is appears as “natural,” based on what Lee Edelman has called “reproductive futurism.” The evil uncle on the other hand speaks with an accent, acts feminine, has weird green eyes and scars, and, in the midst of a spectacular pageant, organizing his unnatural union with the deathy hyenas (he has no children of his own) into a Nazi rally. This counterfeit king deceives with language and fictions. Why do kids have to be taught the dangers of Art? Why was Michael Jackson’s face a bigger crime than his overdose (which was almost seen as a side-effect of a greater problem: his artifice)?

A while back while I was visiting another school, a creative writing student (James Bellard) had written an imitation of my Entrance pageant. This exercise got into someone else’s hands, and that person called the cops, who in this poem found enough reason to bring him to the police station for questioning. It’s not a question of choosing to be political or not; art is political.

 

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

3.

I’m absolutely not interested in determining the “success” of a work of art. That’s really the least interesting way to read a poem. I’m interested in “process” and I can see where this idea comes from, but ultimately to me “process” has become something like a new version of the “wellwrought urn” in contemporary poetry. Instead of a close reading we might give a “process” description. It reassures people who want that kind of handle on art, who don’t want to be overwhelmed.

Everybody’s so concerned about the Internet because too much shit is being published. This is just as true with “experimental writers” as other writers. Can’t go to a conference these days without some experimental writer complaining that too much stuff is being published, too much shit. Taste is lost. Inflation! Money is being burned for smoke on the stage. For the hyena rally. I think: we have to make our own way through this heap of poetry, what Joyelle McSweeney has called “the plague ground.” But of course we’re all involved in capitalism (I’m typing on my pretty Mac right now!). Art is useless. It can’t be accounted for. The accounts can’t be balanced. Kill the genius child.

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.? What about representations of race and racial Others? Can we talk about that?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

4. Race?

Race might be the most important topic in American culture. Everyone’s obsessed by it; everyone’s made uncomfortable by it. So why not write about it?

I’ve heard the argument that minority writers aren’t interested in experimental writing, but there are plenty of racial minority writers that are writing wonderful writing that could be seen as experimental: Cathy Park Hong, Ronaldo Wilson and the Black Tok Collective, Barbra Jane Reyes, Don Mee Choi, Monica Mody, Craig Santos Perez, Bhanu Kapil etc. Just tons. So depending on how you define experimental writing, that’s totally false.

It’s important to point out the inequities in publishing and reviewing, just as I have pointed out that most presses – including experimental presses – don’t publish works in translation. But as with all the discussions about gender inequity, I don’t believe that getting New York Times or whatever to review women or people of color will be that useful. They’ll just pick some boring conservative writers who happen to be women or people of color. That’s better, but it’s not a great solution to me. I would rather try to call attention to alternative venues that are doing more interesting work.

Also, like Evan Lavender-Smith I’m interested in Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “minor literature”: I’m interested in the way cultural/linguistic differences create discordance, how it can be used to deform standardized language (monoglossic ideal). As D+G point out, there is no mother tongue, only a power take-over by a dominant language.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

5. What are some experimental writers I like?

My first instinct is to writer a 4-page list of names to give a sense of the overwhelming and exciting multitude of writing, but I think that’s a punt, so I’ll list some of the people I’m currently reading and thinking about, and that I find inspiring. Since I don’t love the term “experimental” writers, I’ll just talk about some writers that I like. Maybe I’ll go with Avital Ronell and call them “extremist writers” instead of “experimental writers.”

Corny but true: one of my biggest inspirations is my super-brilliant wife Joyelle McSweeney (as you can tell, I have already quoted her). Her “necropastoral” brings out the contamination, the artifice that is already present in the pastoral, creating a kind of gothic ecology that rejects the common eco thinking of trying to return to a pure untouched nature, in favor of a vision of nature as already in flux with infections and contaminations. Art as part of nature, not its opposite. Her “King Prion” poems are possessions (named after the mutating protein of Mad Cow’s Disease) that erupt in this thrilling melee of languages and sounds.

I spend a lot of time reading performance artist Stina Kajaso’s blog, Son of Daddy, which includes breakneck rants and writing about everything from dreams about being sexually assaulted by Lady Gaga to her theories about theater (it’s too high culture, the cure: “blood tsunami.”) to documentations of her performances pieces (sad bunny playing a flute inside an industrial elevator etc) and her crazy collages. To me she seems a text-based relative of Ryan Trecartin’s awesome youtube videos. Instead of the conventional academic/modernist discussion about “e-literature” and poetry in the electronic age, her blog comes off as a thrilling performance through the interface of cyberspace (rather than some kind of modernist “deep structure” based on programming).

Over the past few years, one of my biggest inspirations has been Korean poet Kim Hyesoon (translated by another great poet, Don Mee Choi of Seattle). I just wrote a little bit about her in the website Burnaway, comparing her to the “lowbrow” artist Cammile Rose Garcia: comparing the way these fairy-tale-figures seem supersaturated by media, art. It moves through their bodies. The result if vertigo-inducing changes in scale and space.

From Chile I love Raul Zurita, Roberto Bolano and Daniel Borzutzky (by way of Pittsburgh). Zurita reacted to the horrifying military coup of 1973 with this incredibly absorptive total art work, a poetry that brought in his body (through self-immmolation) as well as the desert and planes that were so frequently used to “disappear” bodies. Although he admitted Zurita was a brilliant poet, Bolano wrote that Zurita was too “messianic,” and based his portrayal of the fascist airplane artist in Distant Star on (the Marxist) Zurita. But this might not be such a big dis as it first appears to be. I think in Bolano’s fiction, fascism and Nazism take on another role as representatives of a kind of supersaturation of art. As Joyelle put it, Nazism is almost a shorthand for the extremity of art. Bolano’s work is also interesting to me for his unabashed invocation of genre; he’s almost Poe-like at his best. Borzutzky translated one of Zurita’s book and his own new book, Book of Interfering Bodies, is a brilliant, hallucinatory exploration of the post-9/11 American imagination.

I’ve spent years translating Swedish poet Aase Berg’s work, and I’ve written about it extensively, so it’s hard for me to summarize why I love it. But part of the reason is I love the way her poems function as gothic stagings, and that also work as “deformation zones” of both bodies and language. The poems are a little like the best moments of China Mieville novels (the monster scenes, not the plot parts), or like when Alexander McQueen created a fashion show based on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Berg often restages other artworks, such as Harry Martinsson’s Aniara, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris or any number of horror B-movies). I love how her deformed Swedish language both feels more Swedish than Swedish and somehow foreign (very much in keeping with the Deleuzian idea of “minor lit”).

Another Swedish writer I love is novelist Sara Stridsberg. I keep re-reading her novels The Dream Department, a hallucinatory, fictional dream-biography of Valerie Solanas, and Darling River, a book about many different versions of Lolita (including Nabokov’s). I love how her novels move in hallucinatory stages of sorts, like infected movie sets. And I love her baroque imagery and elaborate sentence structures (worthy of Nabokov himself or Genet). When I think of her novels, my mind gets flooded by images. For example, how one father, after his wife leaves him, bring all her abandoned clothes out into the woods and nails them to the trees and shoots at them with a rifle, until the woods are just covered with these bullet-riddles clothes. In a post on Montevidayo I compared her writing to Martin Scorsese’s movie Shutter Island if the visions take over. She hasn’t been translated, even though she’s won all kinds of awards and been translated around Europe.

Well I love a lot of other writers: Japanese poet-shaman Hiromi Ito, the “gurlesque” poets, Alice Notley and Clayton Eshleman (older “experimental writers” who seem to have written their best ever work in engagement with the Iraq war), Johan Jönson, Eva Stina Byggmästar, Kate Bernheimer, Chelsey Minnis, Peter Richards, Don Mee Choi, Sandy Florian, Ronaldo Wilson, Sara Tuss Efrik, Heather Christle, Aylin Bloch Boynukisa, Alissa Nutting, Kate Durbin, Feng Sun Chen, Olivia Cronk, Sean Kilpatrick, Blake Butler, Nick Demske, Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle, Lucas de Lima, Megan Milks, Andrew Lundwall, Dan Hoy, Daniel Tiffany (both poetry and criticism), Gina Abelkop etc etc I’m leaving a lot of people out. It goes on and on. It’s too much. Part of what I love about this “experimental writing” (or “extremist writing”) is that it is so overwhelming and proliferative.

Footnote:

The phrase “experimental writing” is really broad. A lot of times it’s used to define writing that is not “mainstream” or “Traditional.” The “mainstream” poetry (and fiction) seems mainly to be a style developed in the 1970s as part of the MFA workshop pedagogy – one based largely on restraint (one must “earn the image,” must not be excessive). It’s a very very narrow category of writing. If they wrote today, Mina Loy or Marianne Moore would both be “experimental poets” today even though they are important historical writers. Shit, even Rimbaud or Dickinson would be considered “experimental.” Even the Vietnam war poetry of Robert Bly (“Teeth Mother Naked” etc), who supposedly is a big influence on the “traditional poetry,” would be “experimental.” So it’s a very confusing term, and it reinforces this binary, which I think it may be inherently conservative.

It’s also a very American paradigm. Most of the greatest foreign writers of the past 100 years would automatically be considered “experimental” in the American situation: Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, J.G. Ballard. It’s crazy.

One result of this weird distinction is that “experimental writing” has become a huge term. That’s not a bad thing (maybe it suggests a kind of un-homogenized “mainstream” or “multi-stream” rather than the homogenized “traditionalist” model of “mainstreamness”). There’s all kinds of infestations, mutations, contaminations: not just with varying styles but with various media and art forms and genres. Another key element I think of “experimental writing” is that there’s “too much” of it, as Steve Burt recently discovered. I want to resist the urge to create order and value and rules for evaluating, forming hierarchies. Rather I want to move through this “plague ground,” forming relationships and connections as I go along.