A Conversation on Experimental Fiction and Now Poetry



The argumentative aspect of a conversation on experimental fiction and now poetry, began with Scott Esposito’s posting the following in his blog, about an article John Freeman wrote:

Stunning lack of experimentation in American fiction in the past 20 years? John, you’ve been reading The New York Times too much, amigo.

Below is last night’s response to Frank Wilson’s (pictured) call that “More people should chime in.





Hi Frank,

From your return e-mail, I see that I knew where some of the conversation was on the web, but now I think I have at least this linked circle’s conversation.

09/10: in Newsday: John Freeman’s Turning readers upside-down

09/18: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s John Freeman’s Experiments

09/24: here in Books Inq.: your I suppose it’s only fair …

09/26: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s Huh

10/02: in his The Reading Experience blog: Daniel Greene’s A Safe and Useless Place

10/02: here in Books Inq.: your Daniel Green advances

10/04: in his Dragoncave blog: Art Durkee’s What is “experimentation?”

As one who has been tagged as an experimental poet, as Art Durkee has, I like his use of the word “play.” But, some of the discussion has gotten pretty heavy, even Daniel Green’s, who I kept wanting to add what he would add as I read his entry, making me think I would have nothing to add myself, but then he stopped, leaving a ball to pick up.

The crux resides in where the muse lies, or what has been inspired. If I am inspired to write a regular poem about something to do with love, or death, or the new roof on my house and how that is mystical or a metaphor for living a moment in life somehow, I may choose a sonnet, a villanelle, conversational prose, free verse, whatever form seems to catch the rhythm and language I want to create. Experimentally speaking, thematically it may fail or succeed, and at the level of word choice it may also succeed or fail. But, I will not necessarily advance poetry writing, poetology or poetiatry, and maybe not even my own skill level. It’s a regular old unexperimental poem on that score, other than in its thumbs up or down aspects.

I may, though, get some inspiration to advance form somehow. Here we have the possibility for experiment. Anne Carson is known for her edgy work at the limits of what is poetry and what is not, sometimes answering which prose is poetry and which is not, hybrid stuff. We may look at her work, and unexperimentally choose to write in the forms she has trailblazed for us. Yet, for the most part, in the material I have of Carson’s, within the forms she chooses, she has her themes and such that she weaves in. Her topics are applied to her forms experiments. She’s so good, I imagine she publishes her experimental successes, yet I also imagine her (unscientifically private?) failures.

Another approach is to play with language, in a way that the poet’s musing is in how words will be selected and arranged. There is no inspiration from death, love, or a new roof, nothing mystic–not intentionally written in anyway. What comes of these methods have a lot to do with how we humans as readers try to make sense out of language. I think of the language poets, but also Jackson Mac Low, who did some great experimental work with language and computer models, whose work with Gertrude Stein’s language I have enjoyed.

Musings can come “in between” the thematically inspired and the form inspired. Poems can be written by Google searching a phrase, to use only words that follow in querie results. Which reminds me of a poem that made Best American Poetry one year, pre-written lines that were passed back and forth in Babel Fish from English into French (I think it was) into English into French, and so forth. On that one, again, once the experiment is done, the nifty effect becomes common knowledge.

Again, I like Art’s use of “play” and want to add that we need to watch where the muse lies for a poet, what’s amusing the poet. But, as we know, whatever is amusing the poet does not always succeed. These failures become part of the experiential knowledge we have.

But, experimental poetry should also include when a poet blazes trails thematically. Mark Doty‘s upcoming book “Dog Years” is billed as his writing about the “unsayable”. This may or may not be true, and if it is true, it may not work. If it does not work, then critically speaking, John Freeman may say something similar about Doty’s work, as he did here, in the review that began this good conversation:

Danielewski clearly wants to push the boundaries of the novel even further with his latest, “Only Revolutions,” but he has done it with a smaller, less ambitious story.

And then he may go on, to tell us where he sees it failing, and where it succeeds.




7 responses to “A Conversation on Experimental Fiction and Now Poetry”

  1. Hi Bud,

    Thanks for posting that piece. Very interesting and gave me some ideas on other poets to check out including Carson.

    Thanks for linking to my poetry blog! Your blog is great, and I have been reading it for a while.

    I just wanted to make a quick note on my name. I’m actually M. Shahin.

    There is another poetry blog run by Rus “Poetry and Poet’s in Rags” that also had a little confusion on the name. Ramadan Kareem means ‘Generous Ramadan’ because it is the month of fasting for Musims.

    Also another note, because other bloggers also had this confused, I’m a girl and not a guy. It is so funny what a name can do.

    Thanks again Bud 😀

  2. Bud, experimental poetry is not dead. I know this because of my recent foray into editor-hood. Really. It’s not dead. Neither is poetry. It’s just fun to talk about it being dead, which is why we all moan and groan so much. Smoking is bad for you so we need another way to fiddle with our time and fingers in those moments of procrastination where we really oughta be writing a poem. Like I’m doing right now.

  3. Hi M. Shahin,

    Thanks for letting me know. I am glad it is corrected–and nice to meet you too.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever read a review of an Anne Carson work that wasn’t positive. You’ll probably enjoy her.

    It’s not clear, btw, so I’ll mention that “Dog Years” by Mark Doty is a memoire, so poetry will be at a minimum. But I’m looking forward to reading that one.



    Hi Christine,

    Experimental poetry can never die, as long as there are poets, and they’re willing to fiddle with the language. I agree.

    I only wish I had more time to write more than the 3-4 poems a year now. I quit cigarettes after 37 years of them in 2003. Very very difficult thing to do. The chemicals leaving my system were one thing, with hallucinations added to the desperation. Then, once my system was pretty clear of nicotine and all, the physical addiction, with its void in the endocrine system’s operation, turned desperate to compensate for them. I’m still at serious risk to slide back into it. I sense this each day. If I were to have two cigarettes, maybe just one, my body processes have been so altered and damaged by feeding the addiction, that I would go back to requiring the levels of smoky chemicals I needed three years ago, as if hormonal switches have been permanently shut down. Insanity.


  4. Bud, I began writing, not because I had something to say, but because I like to fiddle with the language. That remains my most difficult problem as a poet: a poem that is just a play on words that does not really say anything to the reader is a failed poem, in my opinion. Words are fun, but if you can’t connect with your readers, then what’s the point? I think that is why I don’t write as much as others do, and it drives me crazy at times.

    As for your difficult foray out of smoking: you have my utmost sympathy and my apology for using that images so flippantly. I was thinking of my mother, and how she still needs to fiddle with something at times to make up for the lack of a cigarette in her hand, 20 years after quitting. My light-hearted post does not even come close to the emotional and physical hardship you must face every day. And this is something I will never know, since I’ve never smoked. You have my most sincere apology and best wishes for you continued health.

    Rest assurred, however, from the poems of yours I’ve seen in the past few years, even though you are writing less, the ones you do write are compelling and startling for their ideas and structure. I look forward to those 3-4 I get to see.

    yours, Christine

  5. Hi Christine,

    For some reason, probably because you caught me during a craving or something, I riffed on smoking like that.

    A poem does not really fail, if it succeeds on the grounds that the poet was striving for, or if there is someone else who appreciates either the finished work or the process the poet used to create the poem, or if it seems to be leading experimentally to something desirable, whether it really is on the wrong track ot not. Music can be computer made, for instance, as can architecture, and art. The muse would be in the program that made the work. Why not poetry too, if that’s what the poet loves to do?

    I cannot disallow someone else’s art, just because I cannot appreciate it–unless it is socially destructive somehow. People should be free to make and others to appreciate, the art and poetry they have a passion for, however it gets created. For instance, there is Evolutionary Art. These can be ongoing experiments to see what ultimately evolves. An artists muse is initially in the algorithm being used, then in the selection process, of what works and what doesn’t.

    Here is a good page (that needs some updating) of references: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~nxm/mscPoetry/bookmarks.html


  6. Thanks Bud for providing more information. I’m really looking forward to reading Carson soon. And I might even give “Dog Years” a read.

    I’m always looking for recommendations on poetry so I can expand my library of poets, so thanks for this post.

    I’ll be checking back regularly. You always have something good to read or watch 🙂

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