This anthology was conceived in a movie theater lobby by two poets—a twenty-something and a thirty-something—who had spent the last ten years reading thousands of pages of sometimes astonishingly like-seeming poems. As has been the case since the creative writing boom of the 1990s, when the number of terminal-degree writing programs in the United States doubled in just over a decade, much of the poetry the two of us read while studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison was not just competent but technically proficient. If writing programs have taught young poets anything, it is when to break a line, where to put the epiphany in a lyric-narrative poem, how to credibly write in persona, and what the difference is between figurative language and vivid description. And, most of all, how to press whatever pleasure centers are possessed by the narrow band of the North American reading public that still chooses to read contemporary poetry. The poetry we read in our classes, much like the poetry we still find on bookshelves and on the short-lists of major literary prizes, by and large possessed all of these qualities. That the sheer volume of it made it increasingly impossible to appreciate properly was not, we felt, a slight against either the poets or the poems themselves; rather, it was merely the price of living in a nation of such wealth that thousands of young people, ourselves included, can choose to spend several years studying in a non-professional fine arts program. That many of these programs are unfunded but well-attended only underscores the fact that having the space and time to write imaginatively in North America is all too often a privilege rather than a birthright.
This anthology wasn’t born of boredom, however, but rather impatience. Our impatience was not with acts of conventional authorship—as these originate from, and are offered to, individuals entitled to come to literature for any reason they choose—but with the quality and volume of conversation between poets, writers, and readers whose hope for literature is that it will radically overturn their perceptions of reality. We found, as we went searching for writers of experimental poetry and prose, both some remarkable feats of authorial wizardry and some disappointingly familiar literary mores. As is everyone else, experimental writers seem apt to favor the work of nearby peers in part because of friendship; to seek to cement certain authors and texts in a national canon; to treat literary discourse as a zero-sum dialectic between two traditions, one dominant and one countercultural; to favor work similar to their own, on the ground that public reception of such work is a proxy for the response their own writing is likely to receive; and to see in writing primarily an opportunity for rare acts of inspired production, rather than open-ended and readily accessible philosophical dialogues. We found, too, that experimental writing was generally held to be produced and consumed in either the academy or cosmopolitan coastal enclaves. All of these are generalizations, of course, but they held true far more often than we’d hoped they would, and nearly every bit as often as we’d feared.
Yet in a certain view, these features of both tradition-emulative and avant-garde writing communities are essential to the maintenance of an art culture. As North America places little economic value on artistic creation outside the spheres of music and cinema, is it not the case that artists must develop esoteric cultural practices to ensure the survival of their various arts? Occasional cronyism, a kind of aesthetic snobbery, geographic bias, and the recurrence of exclusionary cultural practices are in truth a small price to pay for the perpetuation of linguistic and conceptual ingenuity by a small cadre of literary artists. Still, we wondered if it might not be possible to flip the classroom and put a far greater emphasis on accessible, eclectic, and purely investigatory literary discourse than on the tribalism of the writing classes. To say here that we wondered is to mean exactly that: we weren’t certain if the cause we’d selected was just, if its least ambitions were attainable, or if we had any natural role to play in bringing about the changes we hoped to see.
To our delight, we found, from the outset, that our editorial vision—of an annual, anti-canonical, wildly heterogeneous, and fundamentally dialogic anthology that accepted a percentage of its entries via blind submissions—was warmly embraced by fellow authors and editors. We discovered that there had long been an interest in focusing less on who’s written what or been published by whom than on lovers of literature simply having a public space to discuss controversial, unusual, and thought-provoking texts written by relative strangers.
Our hope for this anthology is the same now as it was in 2012: that each of its 75 texts will provide readers—of whatever educational background—an opportunity to struggle generatively with types of texts they’ve never before encountered. Quite simply, we believe that literature happens wherever a thoughtful dialogue about language happens; the literary is fundamentally the social. If we are less invested in celebrating individual writing careers than are other anthologies with the words “Best” and “American” in their titles, it is not because we don’t have our own thoughts on whose careers will still be of general interest decades from now. Rather, it’s because we believe that the only way to encourage superlatively courageous writing is to encourage, first, an environment in which idiosyncratic writing, no matter how heterogeneous, can be fruitfully debated. In selecting 15 texts from a large and diverse pool of unsolicited submissions, and another 15 from the almost limitless pool of poets and writers we do not personally know, our aim has been to both expand the number of poets and writers with access to a national audience and to expand the national audience for experimental poetry and prose.
Generally speaking, we look for texts that offer some evidence of a new and unusual poetics—an interrelationship between author, genre, language, and culture that cannot readily be found elsewhere. We do not particularly favor technical mastery, nor an awareness of tradition that manifests as clever homage; instead, we find ourselves drawn to works whose concept, execution, or acknowledgment of their cultural context produce such a dramatic reaction, be it positive or negative or aggressively indifferent, that a spirited exchange between its readers can’t be far behind.
Publishing an anthology of this sort has its risks, certainly. For instance, a text produced out of a more or less banal instinct might be selected because its fruits don’t properly match its origins. But our feeling is that the greater risk is a continued celebration of pedigrees (or bohemian subcultures) at the expense of a truly interactive North American literature. In the pages of Best American Experimental Writing we hope you will find, rather than works written in some rarefied lexicon, attempts at communication that so invert our reality that they cannot be discussed without redesigning at least one philosophical cog. Perhaps it would be easier to say that we’d like this anthology to be productive of the same sort of bemused, lively, and intermittently erudite bullshit sessions that led to the conception of the anthology in the first place. Certainly, if the texts in this book fail to rile, exhaust, delight, or benevolently bewilder you, we will feel we have failed in our task. After all, a good anthology encompasses not merely exemplars of exceptional writing, but a series of first principles that can underwrite the sort of environment within which exceptional writing is produced.
There can be, finally, no canon of experimental writing. Experimental writing is a practice—one rightly associated, historically and in the present, with marginalized literary subcultures—not a roster of authors to be read, memorized, and emulated. Well-meaning academics, reviewers, and readers may narrativize the history of experimental writing in America as progressive and episodic, but in fact what the history of radical literary innovation underscores is this: the exploratory ethos that animates so-called “experimental writing” is a moving target. We can discuss ephemeral manifestations of that ethos—or, as we do annually with this anthology, celebrate discrete iterations in an effort to encourage burgeoning conversations—but what we cannot do, and what this series will never aim to do, is act as a final arbiter of literary quality.
As Series Editors of a literary project that makes liberal use of the slippery and dubiously authoritative word “best,” we emphasize here that what the word means to us is not what it might mean to trendsetters, tastemakers, or canon-builders. To us, the “best” experimental writing of a given period comprises whichever texts most readily advance ongoing conversations about the limits and possibilities of language and genre. We consider the quality of a literary experiment best measured in the depth, breadth, longevity, complexity, and urgency of the conversations it produces, as well as the future literary experiments it encourages. In soliciting fifteen pieces and, along with our Guest Editor, picking fifteen unsolicited pieces for this year’s edition of Best American Experimental Writing, we therefore eschewed narrow qualitative judgments in favor of a longer view: which pieces of writing published in 2014 most contributed to the swirl of debate, determination, and discovery that has defined American literature for centuries?
While no editor can comprehensively review all the writing published in a given year—American literature is, thankfully, too rich and varied a landscape to permit such a survey—we have opened Best American Experimental Writing to unsolicited submissions to ensure that this anthology always remains accessible to artists whose names and words we might not otherwise encounter. By the same token, we have committed ourselves, as permanent editors of the series, to a divestment of our own entrenched biases; identifying an eclectic mix of experimental literature was of paramount importance to us throughout the selection process for this year’s volume. Put simply, Best American Experimental Writing courts no “house style,” is not preoccupied with the bugbear of thematic or formal cohesion, and solicits work based not on the identity of its author but the level of commitment it exhibits to the ethos of creative risk-taking.
By what method, then, do we identify this ethos? There are, of course, no set guidelines, nor should there be. The best we can do, as Series Editors, is recognize trends across multiple editions of the series and the thousands of solicited and unsolicited works we read in assembling this year’s volume. These trends suggest to us that the “best” experimental writing—at least as we’ve considered these three words jointly and singly—exhibits most if not all of the following traits: its author assumes an actual rather than merely theoretical risk, whether in relation to her peers, her audience, or her own good name; it challenges formal, thematic, conceptual, and/or cultural conventions; it is circumspect about the sometimes constricting boundaries of genre; it engages, even when it does not seek to endorse, political commitments; it emphasizes conceptual rigor over adherence to aesthetic convention; and it approaches the literary act inductively rather than deductively. Not every work in this volume possesses all of these qualities in equal measure, but all implicitly acknowledge literary exploration as a necessarily risky, concept-driven, form- and genre-conscious endeavor. While certain works in this year’s edition of Best American Experimental Writing may be assigned, by readers so inclined, to certain now-popular taxonomic classifications, as editors we are less concerned with entrenched taxonomies than with producing an admittedly incomplete record of experimental literature’s ongoing dialogic cacophony. Because we cannot know which literary experiments posterity will favor or seek to expand upon—and because the utility of an anthology to the living ought outstrip exponentially its utility to an uncertain future—we take our task to be one of discourse rather than delineation.
As with every edition of Best American Experimental Writing, forty-five works either previously unpublished or first published in 2014 have been selected by our Guest Editor, along with fifteen by the Series Editors and another fifteen from a large pool of unsolicited submissions collected during the series’ annual open reading period. This year, as with last year, we were humbled and inspired by the range and complexities of the unsolicited submissions we received, and exhilarated by the reams of published work we considered for our annual solicitations. Once again we have found, too, that the discourse surrounding experimentation in the literary arts is less dynamic than the facts on the ground. If certain names, philosophies, and compositional gestures reappear with great frequency in some of the nation’s foremost magazines and digital coffee-klatches, a more wide-ranging survey of the American literary landscape reveals that many of the most interesting conversations about the exploratory authorial ethos continue to occur at the margins of our literary subcultures. It’s for this reason that we hope this anthology will surprise its readers—and perhaps even unsettle them—every bit as much as it satisfies their curiosities or confirms their predilections. A good anthology is, after all, not merely a pedagogical instrument but a deliberate provocation. The hope, with this anthology, is that in laying bare our aims to the extent we’ve done here, it will be understood that the provocation we intend is not one founded in literary one-upmanship, but in prodding the conversations we’re presently having about literature until they blossom into exchanges we can—happily—only dream of in the present.
While we hope the works of Best American Experimental Writing 2015 will enjoy future vitalities we can’t now envision, we can say, looking at the assembled anthology, that from our vantage-point there is a certain throughline here. It’s a rather broad one, and it necessitates use of a word that working authors are apt to find loose and even lazy: determination. If six decades of poststructuralist literary theory and three decades of Internet-Age digital hysteria have left us exhausted and jaded by our myriad identities and meaning-making apparatuses, they have also revealed in our literary endeavors a sort of beleaguered optimism: we know none of the options before us are without their fatal flaws, and yet we are determined, anyway, to meet the future with courage. The idea that today’s most innovative authors are not afraid to commingle their cynicism with sincerity, deliberate naiveté, and even an abstraction as exquisitely antiquated as hope leaves us itching to read next year’s unsolicited submissions. If in fact we are entering a time in which leading authors revisit and reengage first principles like dialogue, collaboration, and synthesis with the same vigor their predecessors investigated the dialectics of antitheses, it will surely add to our literary conversations an acknowledgment that, finally, words must belong to persons rather than vice versa. It seems gauche to say it, given that we are all—assuredly—constructed in and by language, but we do believe the ethos that animates experimental art is one that presumes language to be a foundation for, not the limit of, humane explorations. Language is, after all, only one possible unit of measure in our metamodern world.
Best American Experimental Writing 2014 (Series Editors’ Introduction)
from Best American Experimental Writing 2014, pp. 16-20.
It’s common practice for the Series Editors of “Best American” anthologies to emphasize that “best” and “American” indicate only that a work has been favored by a discrete class of persons, from a non-exhaustive pool of possibilities, at the close of a given calendar year. As the Series Co-Editors of this first edition of Best American Experimental Writing, we begin our consideration of the purpose and utility of such an anthology with the same caveat. In fact, we’d like to take things a bit further and concede that even the words “experimental” and “writing” implicitly demand that substantial pressure be placed upon them. What, after all, is “experimental” literature? Well, to offer readers of this volume a spoiler: neither this edition of Best American Experimental Writing nor future editions will attempt a comprehensive response to that important question, nor do we find possible answers to the question nearly as interesting as the question itself. While we’re confident about several elements of the experimental ethos in creative writing—for instance, that it’s a moving target; that it requires some form of risk be taken; that it quite often engages questions of form—we’re most insistent on this one: that experimental writing is not circumscribed by a canon of authors, movements, poetics, or concepts. We approach experimental writing, instead, as a practice that renews itself perpetually in every culture with a literature.
Our hope, with this and future editions of Best American Experimental Writing, is to showcase individual works rather than focusing on individual personalities. If in fact artistic experimentation is a cultural phenomenon, rather than a quality of genius resident in only a select few, it makes more sense to speak of the breadth and depth of those subcultures in which such experimentation occurs, rather than of a canon of names to know or a series of compositional gestures that can or cannot reliably be termed “experimental.” In broader terms, our feeling is that the best anthologies are open-ended adventures rather than codified admonitions, and so it’s with this spirit of wonder and humility that we embark upon what we expect will be a years-long journey of discovery and delight.
Like most editors, we’d like to think that our work has a pedagogical function as well as a literary one. We believe that authors of all ages and stages of artistic development can benefit from an anthology that celebrates the exploratory authorial ethos without overdetermining or indeed even acknowledging its boundaries. We hope this anthology will do yeoman’s work in starting conversations whose trajectories and endpoints are ineluctably uncertain. While every writer for whom the discussion of risk is a regular activity can and should have their own favorite poetry and prose to cite in such conversations—or, increasingly, cross-generic works broadly informed by an experimental ethos and praxis—merely reciting these favorite texts and their authors, rather than considering a generous cross-section of experimental writing, risks positioning literary experimentation as a formula rather than an investigation. So the challenge we take on here as editors is also the challenge we issue to our readers: to expand our capacity for surprise and our sense of the possible, rather than searching these pages for only those experiments that validate our own instincts or celebrate those authors we already consider our literary kin. We believe the best anthologies please few in this latter way, even as they lay down a gauntlet challenging us to be ever more audacious in our writing, reading, and synthesis.
We know that those committed to innovative writing face challenges less adventuresome authors do not. The financial and human resources available for the promotion of literature are still too scarce, and that’s especially true for literature that’s likely to frustrate reader expectations and find ardent supporters only among a scattered few. Publishers of innovative writing spend untold hours, energy, and hard-won monies to reach audiences that sometimes number only in the hundreds. As writers ourselves, we take on the task of editing this anthology mindful of how precious literary risk is—wherever it appears, and whatever its permutation—and that our endeavor can do no more than non-exhaustively honor a few such appearances and permutations. We hope to help publishers and authors of innovative writing advance the conversations they’re already having in their own subcommunities, not to dictate who should be included in or excluded from these conversations. As to that, the answer is clear enough: conversation about the countless ways we can, do, and must push language should always remain open and inviting to all. We therefore anticipate, over the next few years, expanding the conversation this anthology series constitutes to the bursting point; this year’s edition is just a first step, albeit an important one, in contributing to a dialogue that’s been going on in North America and beyond for well over a century.
Our selection process for this anthology is, in keeping with the overarching mission of the project, a novel one. While 45 of the 75 poems appearing in each edition of Best American Experimental Writing are selected by the edition’s Guest Editor, and 15 by the Series Co-Editors, another 15 are culled from a large pool of unsolicited and entirely “blind” submissions. It’s important to us that any literary artist currently innovating feel she has access to this anthology, whether or not she participates in a literary community or, already playing a role in one, considers herself well-placed among its byzantine hierarchies. In reading the more than a thousand unsolicited submissions sent to the series this year—all of which were, like every work in Best American Experimental Writing, either unpublished or first published in the year preceding the anthology’s release—we were consistently impressed with their quality. We wish that anyone worried about the longevity of the experimental spirit in literature could have read over our shoulders as we marveled at the extraordinary range of ambitions in the work we encountered. One reason we took the step of accepting blind submissions is that we know how many courageous authors never, despite all their courage, see their work read voraciously and with deliberation by editors of anthologies, nor even—in many cases—by editors of presses or literary magazines. This owes not to any fault on the part of anthologies, presses, or magazines, but merely the fact that North America is home to such a cacophony of literatures that it’s easy for superlative work by relatively unknown or reticent authors to get lost in the mix. Our hope is to honor the efforts of the writers in this anthology by finding for them as wide an audience as we can, and then returning each year to do the same for another slate of what we consider exemplary works. We expect the result to be a diverse and exciting cross-section of authors, many of whom will be unfamiliar to even the most avid reader of experimental writing. We believe that’s all to the good, not just because it creates new connections between individual writers and readers, but because it emphasizes the scope of the experiments now being authored in North America.
This anthology appears at a time of incomparable excitement in North American letters. Innovative writing today partakes not only of compositional methods but also methods of distribution that were unthinkable just three decades ago. Experimental writing is at its core reactive—dependent upon the existence of precedents in order to interrogate, critique, and undermine them—and the Information Age makes a generous understanding of literary precedent possible for a larger number of authors than ever before. The result is that even postmodernism, once thought of as an arcane literary theory accessible only to those in the ivory towers of academia, has long since passed the point of cultural crystallization. In many ways postmodernism, like its predecessor modernism, has been subsumed into the mainstream, even as we still see a plethora of discrete postmodernisms and modernisms in the innovative writing of today. We also see, however, many authors with an exploratory ethos striving to blend these inherited cultural paradigms into new modes of expression and meaning-making. The Internet has reshaped the literary landscape by expanding exponentially its capacity to record, generate, and juxtapose contexts. Artists can learn virtually from others in distant reaches of the globe, making fusion and appropriation critical hallmarks of our moment. The ensuing surfeit of content at times begets an interest in niche and genre over universality, at times a defiance of all three of these limits.
This confluence of opposites is indicative of our current cultural paradigm, one that seems to be notably different—which is not to say qualitatively better or worse—than what preceded it. Conventional binaries like sincerity and irony, optimism and cynicism, knowledge and doubt, sophistication and wildness, progress and tradition, and even Life and Art are being frustrated or superseded in a way that’s exhilarating rather than enervating. Our relationship to data has shifted from a passive to an active one, as perpetual engagement with our many subcontexts (or a disengagement that carries with it the same apparent swirl of activity) introduces a novel texture to our negotiation of the public and private spheres. Our personal and communal histories are now recorded and therefore permanent—a culture of surveillance highlighted by Edward Snowden’s recent leaks of classified NSA documents—and so the question is ever on the table, how do we react? And how do our reactions, whether in Life or Art or some format that inextricably conjoins the two, alter our understanding of both personal and political commitment? How do we find coherence, if at all, at a time when our selves are endlessly stratified and manipulated across increasingly disparate and specialized forms of social media?
With an eye toward these critical questions, we proceed, as editors, mindful of what the late David Foster Wallace predicted more than two decades ago:
The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back
away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles....Real rebels, as far as
I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of
socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool
smile, the nudged ribs....
In many of the works that appear in Best American Experimental Writing 2014, Internet detritus—whether it be the transmission-corrupted text of Charles Bernstein’s “Dea%r Fr~ien%d”; the misspellings and apparent mistranslations of Nathan Blake’s “A Primers for What Now of This Instant By Which I Meanting Slaughter You Idiot”; Robert Bruno’s “matrix” barcodes, readable only by machines; or Chris Sylvester’s non-interpretive hash of online and pop-culture ephemera—plays a crucial role in creating an oscillatory state between irony and sincerity, cynicism and optimism, artifice and authentic commitment. One neither believes nor mistrusts such detritus because, while deliberately and creatively sculpted, it is not, finally, voice-driven. By constantly gesturing at opposite poles, the texts situate themselves so ambiguously in the middle that we begin to question the utility of these poles in the first instance. This interest in mediation through oscillation transcends existing models for literary expression; indeed, new technologies have made it significantly easier for technophobes or ostensible “non-writers” to author creative works that deviate in compelling ways from conventional form. These deviations take diverse shapes in the anthology that follows: in addition to those works mentioned above, we find textual “noise” directed along highly delineated vectors (as in Douglas Kearney’s harrowing “Every Hard Rapper’s Father Ever”); consequential alterations of our relationship with the page as a field for composition (in Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Zero Dark 30 Pt. Font); and texts that juxtapose forms, concepts, and genres using a breed of literary tampering that’s as inexplicably apt as it is mesmerizing (as in Angela Genusa’s Spam Bibliography). These experiments speak, in their own ways, to the “metamodern” zeitgeist of our present cultural milieu.
Now more than ever, epistemological questions of “truth” and “meaning” lie in the hands of readers. Ultimately, intention matters less than a sublime ambiguity of affect; the fact that we question what is reasonable to believe of the literature we read invites rather than inhibits our attention to and engagement with the text, a state of affairs that might have been unthinkable to the average reader just fifteen years ago. The Internet has democratized not just metaphysical but affective spaces; if gone are the days when geography and financial resources alone dictated the availability of information, gone too is the hegemony of interlocutors, whether they be scholars, credentialed artists, or even canon-minded editors. In 2014, the chief currencies in literature are attention, awareness, and oscillation between forms, concepts, and genres that are as readily navigable and interchangeable as adjacent tabs on a web browser.
If there’s one thing we hope is clear from all of the foregoing, it’s that this anthology is not intended as a conclusive compendium of last year’s innovative writing. No anthology could possibly hope to achieve that sort of comprehensiveness—nor would the project of celebrating innovation in literature be well-served by a philosophy that imagines comprehensiveness as desirable. There is, of course, no discrete rubric imaginable that could aid us in determining which works in a given span are the “best,” as “best” is differentially defined depending upon the context of the utterance, and in any case rightly evolves over years and decades. We make no claims, then, for the work included in this anthology, other than this important one: that to be found here is a superlative if incomplete sampling of the types of formal and conceptual innovation now evident in contemporary North American writing. As a sampling rather than a canon, the emphasis in these pages is ever on the concepts and perspectives and provocative compositional phenomena of the works themselves, not the biographies or affiliations of their authors. No claim can or should be made about whether any of these pieces of writing will be broadly admired or even considered “experimental” many years hence, as far more important than the vagaries of posterity is the vibrancy of dialogues about literature in the present—and the vitality and reach of the subcommunities in which risk-prone literature is authored. No one can know how the future will speak of the present; what we can do today is simply generously document some of the most distinct and courageous experiments now being conducted by English-language writers, and hope that this documentation provides a critical tool—certainly in the present, and hopefully well into the future—to any writer seeking to pass along an experimental ethos to those with whom they live, work, and write.