June 20th, 2011 / 12:10 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Sesshu Foster}

photo by Gary Kuwahara

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East Los Angeles for 25 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and the on-line magazine Joyland.  He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo and other writers on the ELA Guide. His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex (winner of the 2006 Believer Magazine Book Award) and the hybrid text World Ball Notebook (winner of a 2010 American Book Award).

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 suggest the environment and the world and the life of the body informs all literatures, whether traditional, indigenous, lyric, Modernist, post-modern, whatever. How can it not? I don’t pose the body as a figure in some neo-Romantic mode. If the environment is fucked up, as indeed it is, that cannot be construed to mean however that we are still not organisms totally dependent on the natural environment. Thinking will not make it so. Regardless of the constructions of ideology, analysis, polemic, and aesthetics, the body is Nature. “Nature writing” is often a pejorative term for neo-Romantic Christianized (and related/translated Buddhist) transcendentalist odes to idealized “Creation”. This bias results in only certain perspectives of “Nature” represented, only certain bodies represented. In numerous countries, authorities exercise censorship by physical elimination of the bodies of writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa or Isaac Babel or Andrei Platonov or thousands of others who will never be famous. In those countries writers can experiment by surviving. Otherwise, no body, no writing of any kind. But what about here in the U.S.?

Traditionally, censorship in the U.S. is exercised through ideology, polemic, aesthetics—through the application of nonfiction criteria to fictional narratives (which as Gary Snyder has implied, is analogous to exploitative relations in the culture to “the Wild”.) The regulation of the imagination by purportedly objective analytic criteria of social authorities. Which bodies are allowed representation and how? Imagination (construed literally as the creation of images) of the bodies of racialized minorities and working people has been heavily censored, moderated and mediated. Have you heard of Carlos Bulosan (who it should be recalled died blacklisted by the F.B.I., jobless and penniless in 1956 Seattle at age 45) or Jaime de Angulo? You’ve never heard of novelist John Okada, for example, in part because his wife Dorothy burned his manuscripts after his death at age 47 because she thought no one wanted them. However, undoubtedly you have heard of now canonized Zora Neale Hurston because Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway and the Feminist Press and others fought a good fight to make that the case. In the face of standard American cultural repression, writers innovating or experimenting with representation of the illicit body have had to have a force of partisan fighters save their work from this kind of censorship. (Alice Walker raised the funds to mark Hurston’s unmarked pauper’s gravesite.) The relationship of experimental writing to the body, in other words, has its history, like any other, of struggle, of wins and losses. What is defined as “experimental” in contemporary writing is based to a significant degree on suppressed cultures, repressed experiences and erased literature in the past. These bodies were censored—their representation was interdicted.

For seven years I mentored teenage writers in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. These writers included a girl who lived in a remodeled garage, and who usually had so little food available that she regularly suffered dizziness and headaches, and was sent home from school after fainting, even though school offered her her only hot meal of the day. On the few occasions that I was able to give her money, she used it to buy food for her younger siblings. You will never know what a great poet she was, how she transported audience with her joyful cadences. Writers of her potential are working in kitchens, cleaning offices, fighting in Iraq. If writers with her potential were not censored throughout the inner-cities of America, generation after generation, what is now marginalized “experimental” writing wouldn’t have a marginal significance. Those superficial categories would have been replaced by deeper, more viable literatures.

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?

Conceived in terms like “avant garde”  (advance guard or vanguard) or “cutting edge” or “pioneering” or “groundbreaking,” experimentalist writers are described as innovating ahead of, or on the margins of, the mainstream of convention and conventional literature, leading the way for ‘technical’ progress and change. But what does that mean, if as I suggest above, that the conventional mainstream maintains as standard practice a conservatism by censoring, erasing and denying new voices—particularly those of racialized minorities, women, gay or working people? Does that mean that experimental writers continually define their own practice in relation to some obdurate canonical literature of the past, not the future?

Small presses and writers have always engaged in this innovation. Small presses sometimes called ‘independent presses,’ in a kind of anti-corporate, anti-capitalist euphemism) are more than ever the home and the laboratory of experimentalist innovation in writing.

The poetry slam, performance poetry and spoken word movement, with venues nationwide and certain democratic ideas, was a recent example of groups of writers, not just one circle or school of writers, who were innovating in the politics of practice. Their achievements (and limitations at packaging their politics in a commercialized hip hop aesthetics) can still be seen at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and in the 1994 anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, edited by Miguel Algarin, Bob Holman and Nicole Blackman. But anywhere the experimentalists and innovators survive, they usually push the political envelope. That energy is moving readily on-line.

Experimental writers and their small presses, or small presses and their innovative writers, can also work together to develop an aesthetics and politics of language that writers fully dependent on the corporate press cannot. Examples of this are Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s project, where he plowed the seed money earned from his own writing into small press book and magazine publishing, the national network of 826 Writing & Tutorial Centers for student writers, the Voice of Witness oral history publishing project, the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which works in Southern Sudan, and the Zeitoun Foundation which aids in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and—similarly—Luis Rodriguez, who used his own success as a writer to found the Tia Chucha community cultural center and Tia Chucha Press, a poetry press which has published 35 books to date. Which corporate presses allow, let alone encourage, such practices? Which writers contracted and captivated by corporate presses attempt such political innovations?

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?

What’s the use value of experimental lit? That’s not much different from the question, what’s the use value of literature? Which is related to the question, what is the value of literacy, and the issues raging in the politicization of public education? Public education has been turned into a political football because public unions are the largest unions left in post-industrial United States, and are the increasing targets of right wing agents of corporations (which have been accorded a legal status equal to human beings). Literature and the arts, and the literacy necessary both for public participation in a democratic culture, is seen by those who target government support of National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting System or the National Endowment for the Arts as incidental or antithetical to a mass culture that is more and more privatized for private profit, and where the role of the public is solely as consumers, not participants or producers. Declining literacy among students is a pretext for attacking public institutions and unions for public workers, not as a pretext for building 2,509 public libraries, as industrialist Andrew Carnegie did between 1883 and 1929. What do corporate leaders of the 21st century propose to build for the public?

In the increasingly homogenized corporate culture of America, where the kids find the library boarded up and shut because of cutbacks, after-school programs cut but the Starbucks, Jack in the Box and the mall open, where culture they are sold daily fetishizes violence for on-screen gamers, movie fans and future military recruits and there are no jobs, education is being cut back and there’s no money for college (and the budget for state prisons surpassed the budget for higher education in for the first time in California history in the 1990s), while there’s three wars going on at once, what does experimental literature offer, in that context?

“Now for something completely different,” Monty Python used to say. When other privatized forms of culture offer ideologies or aesthetics of conformism, violence and coercion, art and literature (and particularly those arch-literary types devoted to the most artsy and experimental matters) offer independent thinking, self-determination, ideologies and aesthetics of critical and spiritual reflection.

Where else can you find that? (Can you find it on the New York Times best-seller list? Maybe it’s more likely to be found in small clubs in the local music scene.)

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 feel like I’m jumping ahead to address these questions in advance. I discussed the answer to #4 in my answer to #3, and I discussed this issue in my answer to the first question. These things are all interrelated, not just in my thinking, but in practice for a writer. White editors are always taking advantage of privilege by Othering writers of color and marginalizing them. For example, Cole Swenson’s and David St. John’s American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry is one of the most recent egregious examples. Out of its 74 poets, 78 are white. All right, maybe there’s Myung Mi Kim, a couple Jamaican Americans, and outside of John Yau, I don’t know one of them who is not a university professor. That’s not diversity, it’s a pale enforced homogenization. I’m not interested in critiquing that anthology per se. Poet Craig Santos Perez has done that well enough here, and J. Michael Martinez critiqued it from a Chicano perspective in “Poetics of Suspicion: Chicano/a Poetry and the New” which I reposted in part here. The fact is that this type of racialized and class-biased ideological homogenization is prevalent; in fact, it seems to be one of the requirements of university professors necessary to tenure: kiss the asses of your peers and strictly demarcate outsiders. (Compare to the dozens and dozens of white and nonwhite, dozens of Indian and Asian American, dozens and dozens of Latino and African American poets in Aloud, the Nuyorican anthology noted above. Why is it so much more diverse? Because it’s non-academic.)

These types of incestuous anthologies and award ceremonies by academics and academies where they award an ever narrower circle of peers recognition and peerage confers with the ammoniac taint of conformism a kind of capstone on the censored, aborted and denied non-careers of those talented writers who I have seen trying to avoid the destruction of their very lives in the inner city. Writers the likes of Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Karen Tei Yamashita, Sherman Alexie or Allison Hedge Coke may survive, may lead productive careers and produce nationally and internationally important books. But they will still be excluded by some.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

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

Several recent outstanding terrific fun reads:

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997, Semiotext(e)), the wildly, brutally fictive autobiographical narrative prelude to her tremendous—if more conventional—novel, Torpor.

I-Hotel by Karen Yamashita (2010, Coffee House), National Book Award-nominated 600 page-plus landmark story constructed out of origami, graphic novel, and oral history conducted via interview with hundreds of participants about a decade of momentous changes in the Bay Area mixed into a brilliant historical novel.

This Is Not It: Stories by Lynne Tillman (2002, D.A.P./ Distributed Art Publishers), experimental and innovative short stories playing with (not toying with, but exulting in) narratives related to a piece of art—a reproduction of the work prefaces each one.

The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos (2004, Coffee House Press), wonderfully flamboyant recombinations of the historical and personal, the natural and geographic in verse and photograph, pulses of verbal gesture and grammatical image. Born in Calif., every day I see the need for this reimagining.

Older favorites and major signposts:

187 Reasons Mexicans Can’t Cross the Border by Juan Felipe Herrera (2007, City Lights Books), selections from thirty years of now often out-of-print books, prose, poems and hybrid works, prefaced by photographs and notes that contextualize the history and chronology of a relentlessly innovative experimentalist Chicano poet.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (1983, Frederick Ungar), Tolstoyan epic social panorama spliced and diced or structured with wonderful Joycean innovations; I read the Eugene Jolas translation.

Conversations in Sicily
by Elio Vittorini (2000, New Directions), very quiet meditative Italian ant-fascist novel where the author resorted to narrative subterfuge and the narrative becomes fugitive; but it triumphs anyway, and, anyway, for all that the author was imprisoned by the fascists.



  1. richard chiem

      Atomik Aztex is really amazing. He makes funny drawings on the cover page if you ever get the chance to have him sign a book of his.
      Thank you for this interview, Christopher.

  2. Tummler

      Consistent greatness. Thanks again, Christopher!

  3. EC

      Oh this is great.  Atomik Aztex is such a mind-bendingly kick-ass book.

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