June 17th, 2011 / 10:58 am

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Eileen Myles}

Eileen Myles was born in Boston in 1949, attended catholic schools in Arlington, Mass. and graduated from UMass (Boston) in 1971. She came to New York in 1974 to be a poet. She’s the author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, the most recent of which is Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (O/R Books).

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?

I think if you write as if the body were in as many places as it imagines and is then writing could not be anything other than what some might call experimental. Living is probably experimental though we don’t call it that.

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?

I just don’t consciously move with this body or practice called experimental literature. I feel like I’m being asked to endorse a brand. If you asked me about the political potential of writing I’d say it’s boundless. Writing can alarm people by it’s capacity to inform and amuse and prod and scare and so on. Are we really wondering if writing has a power to politicize. The latter half of the question wants experimental writing to stand up and state its virtues. I think you might be thinking about an ‘other’ kind of literature. I mean you might be inviting each of us as appointees in something called experimental literature. I think kinds of writing are continuous. What I entered when I ‘entered’ the writing scene in the seventies was the most open, interesting and diverse world of writing I encountered at that time. We regarded our practice as central and I still do. I think of what might be called mainstream or conventional writing as largely corporate and commercial and cynical with rare exceptions but sadly those exceptions are continously being valorized as successful models for the rest of us when really they are often wonderful writers taken up by the ‘larger’ press for reasons of privilege, talent, accident and/or great social skills. But my world and their world and possibly your world are continuous. We’re not in a self described experimental niche. I don’t get why its an exciting category. I think it sounds tentative. But truly I mean I’m influenced and excited by lots of things that wouldn’t be called experimental but when I glom onto a piece of it I find it so helpful and astonishing and I use some part of that response at some point in time and my own writing changes. I don’t believe forms of literature are so adverse to one another and so disconnected. I only think bad writing is useless and unpoliticizing. And yes I think most work celebrated by the mainstream is bad and and has no political power because it is simply conventional and made to be sold and fed to people like filler. Moo, Baa, poor poisoned farm animal. For slaughter.

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?

Fresh connections, new thinking, obstruction of the censorship of our culture which censors by removal from the so called larger conversation which generally exists to cover uncomfortable smaller or unwanted conversations.

New writing creates communities who claim the writing as their currency and through it they live in a new world. They affect the worlds, all the worlds they come in contact with through this new currency.

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?

I’d relate class to race and race to sexuality. And sexuality to class. I do resist isolating any of the suppressed strands as if THIS is the one we need to look at now. I think the absence of women of color in feminist circles IS troubling as is the absence of queers and trans people in feminist circles. As is the absence of people who resist a discourse founded in theory. Or a discourse founded in middle class or upper class values and ideas of beauty. We are all challenged to resist the comfort of sameness in our working writing living lives.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Black Elk Speaks, Coma by Jean Pierre Guyotat. All these books contribute to the tumble of meaning I want to be thrashing in today.



  1. alan

      I just want to point out that in terms of sheer writing this is the best entry so far, by far.

  2. Janey Smith

      The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is 17 myles in diameter. The Higgs boson has yet to be discovered.

  3. lorian long

      ‘Living is probably experimental though we don’t call it that’

      yah this was my favorite. eileen myles is a badass.

  4. deadgod

      I think kinds of writing are continuous.

      – meaning that writing is a continuum between more “experimental” and more “conventional”?

      – or that each kind of writing is a continuum from more “politicizing” to less “politicizing”?

      I only think bad writing is useless and unpoliticizing.  And yes I think most work celebrated by the mainstream is bad and has no political power because it is simply conventional and made to be sold and fed to people like filler.

      This differentia (“bad”) sounds like a sign of discontinuity.  What is “useless” about “simply conventional […] filler”? – which, after all, is ‘used’ (sometimes) eagerly and well by its makers, for example, materially to accumulate and ideologically to influence.

  5. deadgod

      We are all challenged to resist the comfort of sameness in our working writing living lives.

      Is it possible to challenge “the comfort of sameness” with one’s art – and life – in a way that is ‘comfortably’ conventional? – or is any such challenge fatally compromised in and through its formal ‘comfortability’?

  6. ernesta

      Eileen Myles sure can put some words in some places. I learned some new words in this interview. I read inferno and love it. I glommed onto every sentence.

  7. Michael Fischer

      “I just don’t consciously move with this body or practice called
      experimental literature. I feel like I’m being asked to endorse a brand.”


      Thank God one of these writers finally said this. 

  8. Afternoon Bites: Paul Hornschemeier, “Splendid Kids,” Eileen Myles, and more | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

      […] Christopher Higgs talks with Eileen Myles about experimental literature. […]

  9. Shannon

      This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  10. Terryaim

      You do know that Montaigne said this in the 16th century. He also wore a medallion inscribed with ”What do I know?” I wish more ”badass” writers believed this.