I recently had the humbling experience of doing poorly on an interview for something I really wanted. I actually interview terribly, so it’s not really surprising to me, but still disappointing nonetheless. One of the members of the committee interviewing me is a poet I’ve admired for a long time, who’s work I’ve studied and taught, and I’m sure that didn’t make things any easier, nerves-wise.
One of the questions posed to me that I hadn’t anticipated, hadn’t even ever been asked before, by this poet is “why do you call yourself an experimental poet?”. It was here things started to unravel for me.
What I should have said, if I’d been able to articulate the flood of contradictory thoughts, was something about genres defining reader expectation more than anything else. That labels, and categories, and genres, and styles, do less to define the writing than they do to define the reading.
Take Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN, recently nominated for a NBCC award in both poetry and nonfiction. Take Susan Howe’s genre-defying My Emily Dickinson. Take Christian Bok’s Ventrakl. Take most lyric confessional poetry, that is simultaneously memoir and poem. Take Neruda’s Canto General, simultaneously history and poetry. Take the Bible, for God’s sake. Read it literally, read it figuratively, read it as poetry, read it as history, read it as translation. And then tell me what kind of book it is.
Poetry requires so much of its reader, and poetry that challenges expectations also teaches readers to read in a new way. Genre, and style, and category, these are more than teaching, they are marketing techniques. Ways to define audience and expectation before the reader gets to the text. Here is a book of poetry, and you expect something. Here is an essay, here is a memoir, here is history, and you expect something else. Here is something that is both. That is neither. What do you make of it?
Experimental is defined against traditional. Traditional is currently the lyric confessional, but it used to be something else. Traditional used to be modernist, before that it was Romantic, and before that, something else again. Poetry is vast, it contains multitudes. But the multitudes don’t always want anything to do with one another. Style is a way of differentiating, and in some ways, and for me perhaps most importantly, a way of finding community and kindred in the vast sea of poetry.
But what troubles me, often, about defining those communities is that they involve the negating of value of any other kind of way of doing poetry or being a poet. I think another reason for me, in answer to “why experimental” is because many experimental poets are less likely to disparage other ways of doing poetry. And when I teach poetry, especially at the introductory level, I want to encourage all the ways of poetry in the world. Because even if you, or I, or someone else doesn’t like it, there’s someone that probably does. The “it’s a fine thing, just not my thing” approach to poetry.
So why do I call myself an experimental poet? In part because that is the word that the poets I feel most kindred to use to describe themselves, or critics use to describe them. In part because the expectations it carries with it and imparts to the reader are perhaps more open, less restrictive. In part because I think it helps me define my audience: an audience expecting risk and strangeness, less invested in the “traditional,” whatever that may be at the moment.
But still none of these seem like good answers. At the end of the interview, the poet gave me a good answer, that I’ll remember for next time. He said, “Wallace Stevens said ‘All poetry is experimental.'”
“Oh, that’s a good answer.” I said.
“I would say that ‘all good poetry is experimental.” He answered.