Firewood/Foreword to Reading Experimental Writing, ed. Georgina Colby
Reading Experimental Writing
Edited by Georgina Colby
Edinburgh University Press (2020): NOW OUT in cloth
Paperback will be published in August 2021
The essays comprising this conceptually rich and astutely edited volume read contemporary experimental writing in terms of its engagement with a genuinely historical present moment, unfolding at manifold sites of turbulence. The result is a set of extraordinarily timely essays on aesthetic activism, reflecting an array of perspectives while sharing a sense of the contemporary as emergent and still incomplete. This is a powerful contribution to the moment, and one with long term significance.
- Lyn Hejinian
“Firewood/Foreword,” Charles Bernstein (full text below)
“Introduction: Reading Experimental Writing,” Georgina Colby
1. “‘Fog is My Land’: A Citizenship of Mutual Estrangement in the Painted Books of Etel Adnan,” Jennifer Scappettone
2. “Reading Happily with John Cage, Lyn Hejinian, and Others,” Alex Houen
3. “Experiment, Inscription and the Archive: Kathy Acker’s Manuscript Practice,” Georgina Colby
4. “Rereading Race and Commodity Form in Erica Hunt’s ‘Piece Logic,’” Chris Chen
5. “Contemporary Experimental Translations and Translingual Poetics,” Sophie Seita
6. “On Joan Retallack’s Memnoir: Investigating ‘the Experience of Experiencing,’” erica kaufman
7. “A Queer Response to Caroline Bergvall's Hyphenated Practice: Toward an Interdependent Model of Reading,” Susan Rudy
8. “Reading Language Art in Digital Media: Reconfigurations of Experimental Practices,” John Cayley
9. “Charles Bernstein’s Walter Benjamin, Among Other Things,” Peter Jaeger
Give me a place to sit and I can mysthink the world.
That is to say, every attempt to instrumentalize poetry diminishes its power. In other words, two steps behind, three steps over.
Or to translate: depth is just another kind of surface and surface is either the stutter of inconsequence or a concretization of the sublime.
Let’s put it this way: don’t mind the store, mine words.
Or then again – if you bought it, you have to live with it, and life ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on if you lose heart.
A reign of dullness is not the fate of poetry but a bad weather condition.
Wind alert: Efforts to avert the conventional are met with every possible defamation and denunciation.
Ice storm: Poetry of ethical, aesthetic, and moral challenge is dismissed as morally deranged, aesthetically inadequate, and politically wrong-headed.
The history of poetry is pockmarked by innovation and invention, by the struggle for the new not as novelty but as necessity. And this aesthetic struggle has often, though not always, been led by those previously denied a place in literary history. Over the past two centuries, this pataquerical imperative has become Western poetry’s activist center. The macadamized verse of conventional poetry (MVCP) proliferates like lawn ornaments in a museum of suburban life. In such works, coherence and expression metamorphose into a Coke and Pepsi mélange, concocted for sipping on a smoky, hot day. MVCP abhors aesthetic pleasure and semantic license, supposing it can save meaning by suffocating it.
Williams Carol Williams, Paterson:
Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate: unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness: without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel
bush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channel of the old swale,
the small foot-prints
of the mice under the overhanging
tufts of the bunch-grass will not
appear: without invention the line
will never again take on its ancient
divisions when the word, a supple word,
lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.
“unless there is / a new mind there cannot be a new / line” is the motto of an Emersonian poetics, echoing a Romanticism that resists lyric containment, even if it elides the material and social barriers to such transformation. Even so, this remains a motto for a poetics of democratic social space, whether we call it avant-garde, experimental, exploratory, innovative — or, and here’s the rub, rootless cosmopolitism.
Ezra Pound’s attack on Jews as rootless cosmopolitans echo in today’s culture debates. The ahistorical/revanchist quest for a deep or authentic identity as the sole propriety of a single group, which has fueled the rise of the global right, is toxic for the kind of poetry I want.
In contrast, identity remains a volatile issue for the poetics of invention: the identity of the poet as well as the poem, the identity of language as well as the social world, the identity of politics as well emotion. The kind of poetry I want reveals in every line that meaning is as plural as human consciousness. In this light, avant-garde aggrievement is the malaise of a poetry that is under siege from those who reject its calling as epistemological inquiry, as secular, as resisting closure, as anti-authoritarian. Aggrievement negates the sublimity of the formalist imaginary, turning what can be an exhilarating agonism into self-destructive resentment.
In large measure, the poetry canon is a history of heterodoxy. That is why it’s worth noting that the 2018, sixth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, has turned against the values of the tradition it proposes to profess. While this always-problematic flagship anthology includes a fair number of the poets who comprise a radical tradition of invention in English language poetry over hundreds of years, among the several dozen living poets, there is a total shut-out of U.S. and U.K. poets recognized as, or championing, the necessity of aesthetic invention in poetry (as reflected by inclusions in the major British, US, International, African-American, Asian-American, and women’s anthologies and annuals recognizing such work, not to mention the poets discussed in this collection). People talk about the crisis of the humanities: this is no small part of it. The publisher and editors necrotize their own authority by turning away from poetry as a living art. To exclude mavericks and pioneers also trivializes the work of many worthy poets who are included and deserve to have more robust company.
The lesson is not new: official verse culture is pernicious not so much for formally radical poetries, which have developed alternate mean of production and reproduction, but for the history of poetry and the centrality of poetry within contemporary culture. The Norton peddles its wares as a valuable introduction while proclaiming poetry’s death.
But it’s alive! This collection continues the necessary work of both celebration and reflection on poetry as a living art.
August 16, 2018
 William Carlos Williams, Paterson: Revised Edition, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1992), p. 50. Thanks to Richard Cureton for citing this passage.