When I learned of The Force of What’s Possible’s impending release, I was delighted—elated even. Since I began reading experimental poetry and fiction a few years ago, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it that I suspect other people can identify with. I see this as a problem of accessibility: when such writing works for you as a reader, it feels as if you are making strides into heretofore unknown territory, transgressing boundaries and expanding your consciousness in a way that few people have the luck to do; when it doesn’t work, experimental writing can feel like self-indulgent nonsense. This concern is right there in the subtitle: Writers on Accessibility & The Avant-Garde.
Editors Lily Hoang and Joshua Marie Wilkinson frame the issue through two quotations, the first by Marjorie Perloff, the second by Alain Badiou:
“[B]y definition, an ‘avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.”
“It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.”
To compile the volume, Hoang and Wilkinson asked 100 writers of experimental poetry and prose to respond to these quotations with “a short piece on what you believe to be elemental about your work as a poet/writer.”
The responses that follow spread across the heavy book’s pages like a Bible: intimidating, diverse, all of them impassioned. It is difficult to summarize such a volume. Instead, I think the best way to account The Force of What’s Possible is to lay out the categories into which its essays fall, on the basis of two axes.
Axis I: Form
1. Obscure/experimental. Dan Beachy-Quick opens the anthology with an essay that concludes,
I can just write a line that might become two, two that might become four, and so on, maybe eternally, until I realize I’m lost, the page’s leaf has become the forest tree, I’m lost in the green trees, my hands filled with silken threads, wondering how it is one lassoes song, wondering if song knows the way out, wondering if song ignores what it knows, and wants those who find themselves lost only to become, to become more lost.
This refuge in lostness—syntactically, semantically, and as the ostensible purpose of poetry—resounds throughout The Force of What’s Possible. It makes sense that an anthology on the subject of the avant-garde should include essays that are themselves avant-garde. But these essays encounter the same difficulty that inspired the volume: some, like Steve Tomasula’s “I Only / Never I,” can’t be parsed for any specific meaning outside of its proof that language is never certain, never finished. Or, more generously: the answer to the question of the avant-garde can only be answered by avant-garde writing itself.
2. Scholarly/critical. Many writers took a more academic route, arming themselves with citations and a firm grasp on the history of the avant-garde. Brian Blanchfield’s is the first. In “Freely Espousing: Or Subject, to the Avant-Garde” he claims, “I think it is not from an objective distance that Perloff has conjoined the avant-garde and absolutism yet again, in her congratulation of work that best manifests the obsolescene of the ‘object.’” Sentences like these had the effect on me that many of the more academic essays did: their high diction felt a little like a mask. That doesn’t mean these essays aren’t valuable—not at all. But there is something about the sophistication of the most heavily footnoted accounts in The Force of What’s Possible that seems to me insecure, even associated with the “Empire” that Alain Badiou warns against.
3. Common-sense/plainspoken. The remaining essays, and the most compelling to me, took a more explicit approach, answering Hoang and Wilkinson’s question in the same relatively plain language with which it was posed to them. Among the best were Jeremy M. Davies’ “The Pleasure of Perversity,” which claims that while surprise and “doing wrong” aesthetically is important to the pleasure of reading, “Narrative is not the enemy. Mindlessness is.” Brian Evenson reminds us that “an avant-garde that falls again and again into certain comfortable patterns of disruption becomes part of the literary establishment.” Lydia Millet proposes that content, rather than form, may be the method of subversion most capable of ushering in revolution. Alissa Nutting declares that all writing should be accessible, and that “accessible to me means voluntarily embarrassed.”
Punch me, but this willingness to be vulnerable, to make unqualified, common-sense claims, makes these plainspoken essays stand out against a backdrop of more formally experimental or academic approaches. “The best sacrifice, the best Empire defense,” Nutting says, “is to scream forth humiliations. To be unclean, unloved, and unrepentant.”
Axis II: Content
A. Affirming. Most of the writers included in The Force of What’s Possible agree with the claims of Perloff and Badiou: Avant-garde writing defies the status quo or “Empire.” These writers spend their time, then, defining Empire and the ways in which their writing attempts to subvert it. Some loci of engagement:
The Body. “For me, the equation of language doesn’t exist without a body.” —Khadijah Queen, “Navigating the Body, Revealing the Audience: On Sonic Integrity, Contrast, movement, and Endurance.” (See also Julie Carr; Duriel E. Harris; Lidia Yuknavitch; and Amber DiPietra, Jen Hofer, & Denise Leto.)
Ethnic, linguistic, and sexual identity. “Blackness and queerness are cool capital in contemporary American poetics. You play those tropes right, with the precise combination of mystery, pathology, and song, and you’re destined for acclaim, fellowships, and grants. Too much of any of this trio, however, and you run the risk of making your verse, the meat of it, too dark for mass consumption.” —L. Lamar Wilson, “Queer Black Avant-Garde Poetics: On Being Guilty of Excessive Darkness in the First Degree” (See also LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and Craig Santos Perez.)
War and politics. “There are many lies in poetry. Pretending that violence and horror do not exist is only one of them.” —Clayton Eshleman, “Genesis and Praxis.” (See also Carmen Giménez Smith.)
B. Questioning the terms of engagement. A second type of argument, less common but more thought-provoking, takes issue with the implications that underlie Perloff’s and Badiou’s claims—not with experimental writing per se, but with the idea of an avant-garde. Their assertions include:
All language must be new, not just “experimental” writing. (“Writing requires a revolutionary drive against at least a part of the self. It’s best if it touches something ugly or previously considered ugly. And to paraphrase Duras: Writing that strives for correct, proper form or anti form is kinda dead.” —Stacey Levine, “Writing Properly?”)
Readers matter, not the idea behind the writing. (“[A]t the end of the day, ideological battles matter little outside our insular spheres. Readers matter.” —Mary Caponegro, “Success in Circuit Lies (Redux).”)
The avant-garde is itself a sort of status quo. (“The term avant-garde should be retired; it is without contemporary significance, other than as a way to perpetuate old myths of newness.” —Ann Lauterbach, “In Praise of the Various.”)
The writing process itself does not consider questions of the avant-garde. (“[I]n each case, I wrote the poem because I couldn’t not write it.” —Jaswinder Bolina, “A View from the Factory Floor.”
C. Versus the avant-garde. A rare few essays take issue with experimental writing itself. Ravi Mangla asks, “What’s so wrong with plot? Or linearity? Or genre?” Wendy Rawlings writes, “I have no truck with avant-garde work that’s so abstruse, heady, esoteric, and cryptic, not even the writer herself would be willing to venture a notion of what it’s about, as if ‘aboutness’ is merely a nod to the status quo. Bullshit.” While these viewpoints are a breath of fresh air in this volume, they are also dwarfed: the writers asked to contribute to The Force are experimental writers, plus or minus. So the cry against experimental work is small.
It seems to me that, taken as a whole, The Force of What’s Possible answers its own question. This answer arrives particularly via the juxtaposition of experimental essays with the more plainspoken ones, and it looks something like this:
If the goals of experimental writing are themselves intelligible, they’re not being met by writing that is not intelligible; championing the avant-garde on the basis of claims that can be articulated might be a losing battle. But if there is something more at stake for experimental writers—something beyond the scope of our normal language, of “Empire”-taught and -sanctioned thinking—they’re doing it, whatever it is.
As Melanie Rae Thon writes, “through the fusion of meaning and music I can travel beyond my own limits of language…I can begin to sense, to know, to render the mysterious diversity of experience through the poetry of other beings.” If the essays in The Force of What’s Possible are to be believed, that “mysterious diversity” is mysterious precisely because it is not immediately accessible. These 400 pages of writing on the subject, however complex and mottled and at times downright abstruse they are, epitomize the difficulty in diversity—and remind us that embracing it anyway, no matter how frustrating the process, is the purpose and the mystery.