Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. Selections come from work published in journals the previous year, unpublished solicitations, and a blind submission pool, and the anthology is collaboratively edited by the series editors (Seth Abramson and Jesse Damiani) and a yearly guest editor. This year, the guest editor of Best American Experimental Writing was the poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney, who spoke with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea about the selection process and what experimental art can mean today.
Michael Martin Shea: Hi Douglas! Thanks for taking the time to chat about BAX. I want to start off talking about the editing experience itself. Did the process of curating this anthology lead you to question or expand your own notion of “experimental writing?”
Douglas Kearney: One of the submission guidelines stated—I’ll paraphrase it—that “experimental” could simply mean experimental for the writer in question. Of course, to solicit and then select writing of this character requires some knowledge of the writer’s more tried approaches. Even so, I find the idea of experimentation as a potentially idiosyncratic act to be consonant with the idea that experimental is, first, a process and not an aesthetic—a notion I found resonant before Seth invited me to serve as guest editor. On the other hand, working on BAX 2015 led me to consider how what might not seem legibly experimental to some readers might be clearly experimental in the context of the tradition from which the writer works. I’d love to explore that more now as a reader than selector.
MMS: Part of the task of the guest editor is to find—whether through our submissions pool or otherwise—where experimental writing lives today, which involves navigating all sorts of different journals, presses, and writing communities. Where were you able to find experimental writing, and what do you think feeds an experimental approach to art?
DK: One constraint to which I submitted was to limit—if not bar outright—multiple selections from the same publication or press. I think I broke this self-imposed rule twice in selecting my “final forty,” though due to the nature of a collaboratively-edited anthology, reading the permissions may not look to bear my effort out statistically. Still, I wanted to force myself to read more widely and to “chew my own food” so-to-speak.
And there were other editorial stays I set to check an impulse to ease my selection process. Some years ago, I remember feeling a way about an anthology in which it seemed the editors leaned heavily on selecting alums from their college, and I fussed about it enough in my personal circles that I couldn’t see using BAX as, say, a Cal Arts yearbook, even though I would have found some of the B of AX in that community. That was hard.
Ultimately, I found compelling experimental writing all over. It’s not surprising that this is the case; what’s surprising is that some folks seem committed to insisting it’s only happening in one or two places.
Of course, there are institutions in which an experimental approach has scaffolding. Experimentation on the individual level can come from a generative boredom with one’s own writing habits and those inherited via the direct influence of teachers and the more ecological “tradition.” Lively discontent/disagreement with what one perceives as a conventional approach’s significations and textures can fuel deliberate experimentation. And we mustn’t forget experimentation can be pleasurable even when it isn’t writ large.
MMS: Looking through the anthology, we find writers working in mediums as diverse as hyperlinked e-novellas, concrete poems, drawings, photos, diagrams, erasures, and so on. And yet there are also pieces in here that appear like more traditional writing—lineated poems, for example. Conventional wisdom holds that experimental writing above all looks experimental—that to experiment is to experiment with form. How do you balance this concern with (or predisposition toward) formal experimentation with a broader notion of experimental writing?
DK: To be honest, there were times during the process when I thought I hadn’t chosen enough visual experimentation. After all, as a guest editor, I, too, was selected. Central to my preparation for the task was a constant grappling with what it means to be chosen to be a guest editor. How does that act of curation project an outcome? What did the series editors want that they reckoned I would provide? The most compelling way to think of my role was as analogous to a DJ invited to an extant radio show or podcast. They were interested in my taste and my takes and how those would work in and against their format.
So: much of my work does include a visual element. Thus, I thought: maybe they’re after that. But I know that isn’t the only place experimentation is happening in my work. Navigating this in my selections of other writers was a matter of reading, even when scanning was more efficient.
I also had to remind myself that this is an anthology of experimental writing, not poetry. And though space led us to privilege shorter pieces, I did not have to think of my selections as poems in order for them to make the cut. Writing takes so many forms. “American” is equally nuanced, and by rights should include the North, Central, and South Americas, right? I failed in this regard, focusing almost completely on the U.S. Maybe, in the future, BAX can secure guest editors with the literacies and fluencies necessary to better realize the possibilities and promise of that open A.
MMS: A lot of the work in the anthology is at least subtly political, to say nothing of the overt pieces (I’m thinking here of Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Conspiracy Simile,” especially). What is the link, for you, between experimental writing and the political?
DK: Earlier, I sidled up to the notion that for many writers, experimentation itself is a process of political engagement. I think of the concluding lines in Amiri Baraka’s “Ka ’Ba”:
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?
For some of us, there exists a sense that writing and reading can be transformative acts and that what we might recognize as a cultural status quo abets other kinds of stasis. Thus, the act of conscious experimentation is one way of practicing one kind of a change that can create the conditions for other changes; “the sacred words”—product of a process—make possible another series of actions like the litany of the poem’s penultimate sentence. I’d bet these larger changes are the desired outcome for many of the writers in this collection.
MMS: There’s been an intense discussion this past year about the role of appropriation in writing, and a lot of push-back against a Conceptualist approach to found text. In the anthology, there are a few examples of writers working with found text but in ways that feel much more dynamic than Goldsmith-style appropriation–Emily Anderson’s “from Three Little Novels,” for example, which morphs the text of various Little House on the Prairie novels, or even your own editor’s note. What are your thoughts on the possibilities of working with found text?
DK: We made our final selections very early in 2015—the first week of February—so it was before Goldsmith’s Michael Brown autopsy appropriation and the conversation that followed. But one way some folks have framed appropriation is as a kind of neutrality. I do not believe appropriation is neutral or outside of a subjectivity. That strikes me as patently dishonest. An alibi. A way of saying you’re not there just in case being there would make you guilty of something.
I’ve written elsewhere that appropriation carries with it desire. A writer wants something from that (those) text(s). I think the most dynamic possibilities come from what happens when a writer honestly reckons with that desire instead of pretending/claiming it doesn’t exist. So I hope they are dynamic!
MMS: Without trying to force you to pick your favorite child–are there any pieces in the anthology you’re especially excited about?
DK: Ha! I have twins, so I’ve cultivated an allergy to this kind of question. Honestly, I am most interested in how these different works work with each other. How some play and some fight. How a reader’s excitement for one may lead them to another.
Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and librettist. He is the author of Patter and The Black Automaton.
Michael Martin Shea is the Managing Editor for BAX.