Every AWP I buy all of my books for the year. In an attempt to make sure I think a little about each book that I bought, I have determined to write up at least something about each one whether it be positive, negative, a single line, or twenty-pages. I am tired of the boring formality of typical book reviews, so I have decided to post all the reviews on my blog so I can say what I want. Please comment. I want to know your thoughts.
This week I take on a whole Anthology!
The BAX: Best American Experimental Writing, 2015.
Guest Editor: Douglas Kearney. Series Editors: Seth Abramson and Jesse Damiani.
Full disclosure: I do not know any of the editors. I know a few people in the anthology, but I did not comment on any of their work.
Honestly, I bought the BAX. Best American Experimental Writing, 2015 at the AWP because it came with a free Mojito. And it was worth it because that mojito was fucking delicious. But I can’t say I was too excited about reading the BAX itself because I personally associate the term “experimental writing” as code for poetry that is too often voiceless pastiche or the worst kind of academic trendiness that feels hip in the moment but ends up having the lasting power of comedy from another era. But I vowed to read and review every book I bought at the AWP, so I brought the BAX to be BEAch with me today.
My worst suspicions felt confirmed by the first poem, Will Alexander’s selection from The General Scatterings and Comment, which felt like a series of notes from random Ph.D. theses that I was thoroughly not interested in. Already I didn’t trust the editors of this anthology who claimed in their introduction that one of the main qualities of good experimental writing is that “the author assumes an actual rather than merely a theoretical risk”. To me this kind of untouchably dense LitCrit performance is exactly what I feel is totally riskless in experimental writing. For really, who is going to go out on such an anti-intellectual limb and admit they are bored to tears by lines like
“Language by means of imaginal vivacity has no other motion than to open itself to ‘sidereal immensity.’”
Or “As for American insouciance concerning climatological decohesion – it remains a vile and damaged liberty.”
Fuck it. I will. I believe a poem, even an experimental one, has to make me care somehow, has to invite me to engage with it. Of course, another very real possibility is that I’m too stupid and lazy to get this poem. If that’s the case, I’ll just sit here comfortably in my Dunning-Kruger effect. There is no talking me out of it.
So, I can’t say I entered this anthology with much hope until I got to Aaron Apps’ “The Formation of this Grotesque Fatty Figure.” Wow. It’s a strange, interesting, and risky project unbinding this loaded cultural notion and then tearing it apart and reassembling it in such bizarre and beautiful ways. This is experimental writing that doesn’t shy away from subject and theme, the two main things traditionally stripped away or distanced in the avant garde. I’m so bored with that. Make it strange and weird and obese and unapologetic and brave like this poem. That’s the poetry for me.
Dody Bellamy’s amazing “Cunt Wordsworth” follows Apps and my trust in the editors is coming back, especially when they show a little sense of humor and disregard for the seriousness of their endeavor with Jeremy Blackman’s hilarious “The Complete Baby Name Wizard” and, in the anthology’s bravest moment, choosing the almost shockingly silly poem by Santino Dela whose entirety reads:
This is How I Will Sell More Poetry
Than Any Poet in the History of Poetry
I am releasing a book in the shape of a pizza
I know what you are thinking
“It looks like a pizza”
well I have news for you
it is a pizza
I love it! Here I feel the editors taking some real risk! Of course, much of the anthology contains things one might expect in an experimental anthology: Anselm Berrigan writes a poem in the shape of a rectangle. Of course. Balthazar Simones adds some visual art. Cody-Rose Clevidence supplies the obligatory page of near nonsense. Many forms of non-poetic things are adopted as one might expect – charts, plays, reports, indexes, translations, checklists, prescription notes, and musical scores. Some are compelling, but form appropriation seems like a pretty safe endeavor to me after all these years of “experimental” writers doing it. I don’t feel like it is bad. I enjoyed a lot of the poems, but I’m just saying it doesn’t feel all that experimental and few of them transcended their conceptual novelty. Or maybe I didn’t give them a chance because I was turned off at the outset.
Of course, the cultural zeitgeist is Twitter, text, blogs, etc. The BAX is loaded with it. Some of it is really quite good like Rachel Cantor’s “Everyone’s a Poet” (an imagining of the Bronte Sisters in the modern era) which I think captures the best of the freedoms that Twitter and blogs and new media offer in poetic possibilities. It’s just a blast to read. Others like Santino Dela’s “Twitter Feed”, which I think is just his actual Twitter feed, falls flat. (Sorry, Santino. I really liked your pizza poem though.)
But the poems I liked the best didn’t seem to fit exactly into any of the predetermined “Experimental” paths and their content moved above formal or conceptual enterprise like Sarah Vap’s “[13 Untitled Poems]” riffing off a quote from John of the Cross, or the strange and joyful music of Kiki Petrosind’s “Doubloon Oath” one of my favorite poems in the anthology.
So, overall, I would have to say that the Editors Douglas Kearney, Seth Abramson, and Jesse Damiani did a pretty good job in their goal of representing the different conversations in the “experimental” realm of poetry. Clearly, my tastes are evident in which of conversations in experimental writing interest me. So, my apologies if I was dismissive of some of the work. I’m glad all this work is being done, even if I don’t care for some of it. It’s just one person’s aesthetic leanings. So, in conclusion, I won’t pick up the next BAX as fast as I would a delicious mojito, but I’ll pick it up again.