Poet Josh Kalscheur interviews Seth Abramson, Co-Editor of the Best American Experimental Writing (“BAX”) anthology series, the first volume of which was published by Omnidawn in January 2015.
Josh Kalscheur: What initially led you to this project?
Seth Abramson: As it turns out, it was more a “who” than a “what”—Jesse Damiani, my Series Co-Editor, developed the idea and asked if I wanted to help him with it. My first thought was to be surprised that no one had proposed this sort of anthology before, as while Jesse and I have seen and read many remarkable anthologies of innovative writing, none were annual or open (even in part) to unsolicited submissions. My second thought was to realize how desperate I was to immerse myself in new modes of writing, and how this project would be a perfect opportunity to do just that. It was a selfish thought, but after spending 2012 and 2013 reviewing over a hundred books for online venues—and having been exposed to several thousand more poetry collections in the quest to find a hundred or so to review—I’d become pretty jaded with respect to contemporary poetry. I saw much well-deserved celebration of competent craft, but too little acknowledgment of courageous acts of authorship that fall outside conventional notions of good taste. I wanted to do my part to expose innovative writing to new audiences, and to encourage conversations about risk that were already happening locally to move to the forefront of our larger literary dialogues.
JK: How do you define “experimental”? Are there particular works that embody how you conceive of this definition?
SA: I think one important thing to understand about BAX is that we don’t define “experimental” and don’t wish to define it. As Jesse and I mention in our introduction to BAX 2014, we consider the term a moving target, and any attempt to pin it down a kind of betrayal of the very concept of experimentation. We’re able to see certain throughlines in the works selected for BAX 2014—for instance, they often offer challenges to form, or place their authors in positions of risk with respect to their subcommunities, usually by contravening received notions of good taste—but there’s no single standard for what qualifies a piece of literary art to be considered an “experiment,” and there shouldn’t be. It’s more than that, though: the nature of what is or is not an “experiment” not only changes dramatically across space and over time, as it depends on local and regional and even international contexts, it’s also going to be different for each author. Any time an author sits down to write something that scares them because of how much it deviates from their “usual” mode, that author is experimenting. That’s one reason why, while we don’t seek to define the term “experimental,” we do feel as though the most interesting literary experiments are those that provoke public dialogue and even debate. Individual triumphs of will are critically important to art, but it’s not until an act of authorship enables other authors to reconsider what language and genre and literary subcultures can generate that we see its short- and medium-term sociocultural impact.
As to the long-term impact of any individual work, we don’t presume to know and don’t see BAX as an attempt to intervene in those sorts of conversations. We are not canon-builders and don’t wish to be—not only because the needs and tastes of our successors are unknowable, but because we are exponentially more interested in the conversations about literature that happen during our lifetime than whatever posterity plans to do with our own or others’ writing. So “experimental,” for us, is as much a matter of effect as it is cause, and “best” signifies only that a given work seems to offer all of us an unusually robust opportunity to have a vibrant discussion about the capacities and incapacities of language in our time. We defined “American” as broadly as possible—to include all North Americans, and any ex-pat North American writing in English anywhere in the world—in an effort to limit the material available for consideration (as we are human and have other responsibilities) without unduly curtailing the number of authors eligible for inclusion. We then opened a portion of each edition of the anthology to unsolicited submissions, in an effort to hear voices that we might not otherwise have heard. Speaking only for myself, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a single individual might be in a position to themselves select an entire anthology of work from among their own friends and acquaintances; it’s for this reason that we have a Guest Editor each year, co-Series Editors rather than just one, open 20% the anthology to unsolicited submissions, and prohibit members of the editorial staff from considering unsolicited work by friends, family members, and current or former professional associates (e.g., teacher/student, professor/peer, and so on).
JK: One of the hardest parts of being an editor is not letting your own preferences obscure how you evaluate a work. Can you speak to this challenge?
SA: It certainly is a challenge. But I think Jesse and I made it much easier for ourselves in several ways. First, because the series was born from our own interest in being surprised and tested and even shocked by new work, rather than having works confirm our own experience of language and genre; second, because the editorial partitioning of the anthology I mentioned above—a guest editorship, two editors for the series, a bevy of unsolicited work (20% of the whole)—helped to ensure that even if one of the editors temporarily fell prey to the narcissism of a self-aggrandizing selection process, there would immediately be another editor present to offer some push-back.
Many literary honors today are selected by a consensus of several persons, but as it’s an aesthetic consensus rather than some other kind, the final standard really becomes, “What sort of writing pleases all of our current tastes superlatively?” The danger with that sort of editorial process, I think, is that it privileges work that conforms to common assumptions and presuppositions about language. By comparison, no work appears in BAX 2014 that did not generatively surprise and test at least one of our editors, and for the 40% of the anthology that was either unsolicited or selected exclusively by the Series Editors, a work had to undermine the assumptions of more than one well-read reader. When an aesthetics-oriented editorial process presupposes the need for consensus, it can become mountain-shaped—an aesthetic winnowing—whereas a poetics-oriented editorial process that requires consensus but also presupposes the need for editors to be challenged offers a more inductive and exploratory approach to selection. At least that’s our goal; we hope to do a better job of meeting our own standards with each edition of the anthology.
JK: What was something that surprised you as you were reviewing submissions? A trend? A particular type of experimental writing?
SA: I was surprised by how eclectic the 1,000+ unsolicited submissions we received were, and I was surprised to be surprised because we’d been expecting eclecticism from the start. But the variety of work we encountered was really staggering. It struck me, too, how much innovative work would be difficult to put in print on a shoestring budget—the sort of budget nearly all literary publishers operate under. It reinforced my sense that the Internet has, in this respect at least, been a godsend for literature and publishers of literature. It’s not the case by any means that the most exciting work we encountered was always the work most difficult to render in print, but certainly much of the conspicuously daring work we read did contemplate that literature has now moved en masse into virtual and (every bit as important) cross-genre spaces. That’s one reason Jesse and I asked Omnidawn to consider creating an online space for BAX selections, which they graciously agreed to do; we’re hoping to expand the size and scope of this online selection of works in future editions.
I’ll also say, though, on the other side of things, that it’s clear the avant-garde in literature has its own common practices, just as more “conventional” subcultures of writing do. That seems a paradox until you’re confronted with dozens of somewhat similar iterations of the “experimental lyric.” Many of the works we encountered that were written in this mode were fine exemplars of its particulars, but we also felt that the conversations they provoked—about parataxis, about the fragility of meaning and perspective, about the incapacities of language, about the nature of subjectivity—were conversations that have already occurred, and with admirable energy, across the broad spectrum of America’s literary subcommunities. That doesn’t in any sense devalue these works or these conversations, other than to say that they weren’t the best fit for BAX.
JK: I’ve always been fascinated by how editors decide to order anthologies, given the disparate poetics often represented. How did you approach this part of the project?
SA: We decided to order BAX alphabetically by author, and, like every other editorial decision an editor makes, it does suggest a certain set of political commitments. For BAX, I think the biggest one was this: as series editors, we’re more interested in individual works than individual authors, as BAX is not in any sense a canon-building exercise but rather a locus (one of many) for dialogue and debate among writers and committed readers of contemporary literature. By ordering the anthology alphabetically, we wanted to emphasize, I think, that each work is its own conceptual space and therefore its own conversation waiting to happen. BAX is not a themed anthology, nor is each edition intended to perform some notion of editorial cohesion. In fact it’s the opposite: I think we’d rather that what you find on any given page in BAX offers you very little idea of what’s to come on the next page. Ordering the works alphabetically by author, rather than with some predetermined editorial vision in mind, makes that scenario more likely.
JK: Though I’m sure there are many that may fit into this category, can you discuss a work that embodies/celebrates what this anthology is all about?
SA: I don’t know that any one work epitomizes the mission of the anthology—I’d probably say that only the totality of the anthology can do that—but there are certainly many, many entries in BAX 2014 that offer a good opportunity to briefly underscore some of its editorial values. One example is the work that will most immediately catch the eye of anyone flipping through the anthology: Robert Bruno’s series of QR codes—codes that can only be read by a smartphone or similar device—which he’s entitled “www.my/my/my.com.” I feel that with these images, none of which contain “language” in the usual sense of that word, Bruno is asking a host of questions about language, genre, and culture. But the fact that these codes also lead somewhere emphasizes that this question is not merely a rhetorical one; Bruno, like many metamodern authors whose writing is informed by network culture, understands that meaning deteriorates but also that we must, in any case, continue striving to mean. There is a statement behind Bruno’s poem, encoded in both the “text” and the website that text leads its readers to, that reassures us that political commitments are still possible and vital. I also think “www.my/my/my.com” (which even as I write in MS Word, my computer is trying to make into a hot-link and underline rather than put in poem-indicative quotes) is insidious in the very best way: it can provoke certain heated but generative conversations that even an exemplary Billy Collins poem would not and could not.
JK: Being that this is the first year of the anthology, what are your hopes for it in the long run?
SA: My hope is for the series to feature the largest number of authors possible, publishing work producing the largest number of discrete conversations possible. My hope is that we continue to avoid any house style or evident editorial bias in favor of an eclecticism that is pedagogical rather than affected. We’re excited, too, to bring in annual guest editors with varying perspectives and commitments, and to avoid repetition in all its subtle and conspicuous forms. We really do want each page to add something to the series that no other page has yet added.
JK: The VIDA pie charts have illuminated many of the troubling trends with regard to gender diversity in the publishing world. How did you work to achieve a diverse group of contributors?
SA: This is something we were mindful of at every stage of the editorial process—both implicitly and explicitly. The good news, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, is that when you’re searching out writing that provokes novel conversations you needn’t engage in any intellectual or procedural gymnastics to produce a diverse anthology. Work of this sort is being written by individuals as diverse—in all respects—as North America itself, and one would have to be trying very hard indeed to miss that. I recently sent the Table of Contents for BAX 2015 to our new publisher, Wesleyan University Press, and I can honestly say that I haven’t seen a more diverse band of contributors to any non-themed literary anthology. That’s not a knock on other anthologies; it’s merely to say that the mission of this one was especially conducive to a slate of selectees with widely divergent backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and commitments.
JK: What’s something you want readers to say/think after having read this anthology?
SA: “I’ve got to show this page to ______________.”
I’d like to think that whether one is a teacher introducing innovative writing techniques and concepts to students, or a working writer looking to enter into new dialogues with peers, this anthology is going to produce not just individual readers but discrete conversations among readers. Speaking only for myself, I find the duration, scope, and complexity of dialogues about contemporary literature to be a far more reliable measurement of lasting influence than the extent to which individual works please the aesthetic senses of individual readers. Particularly in the age of social media, there’s a tendency to create the appearance of “conversation” without any of the actual markers of a real-time dialogue. A conversation involves interacting congenially with those whose opinions are dramatically different from one’s own; assuming good faith whenever possible; remembering that each party to a dialogue—not just one—should spend time listening as well as speaking; and declining to use dialogic exchange as an excuse to perform one’s ability to adhere to social norms. I think conversations about poetics, informed but not circumscribed by a consideration of aesthetics, offer us the very best chance to remind friends and strangers alike that writers are every bit as diverse in their experiences and worldviews as are any thousand anthologies comprising idiosyncratic and audacious acts of authorship. Most poetry and prose enjoys only a very temporary place in the world; the authorial ethos that leads writers to court risk over approbation is not only more uncommon and transformative but, I think, more urgent.
Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Metamericana (BlazeVox, 2015) and Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). Currently a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a columnist for The Huffington Post and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015.
Josh Kalscheur is the author of Tidal, a book of poems forthcoming from Four Way Books in Spring 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Boston Review, Slate, jubilat, The Iowa Review and Best New Poets 2013, among others. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin where he waits tables, tutors and occasionally teaches undergraduate English classes.