Kill Your Idols: On the Violence of Experimental Literature

In a recent lecture on innovative writing, Myung Mi Kim argued that any artistic experiment is inherently violent, as the artist is dismantling an inherited tradition in order to make way for the new. For many writers, innovation does indeed contain destruction in its very definition. After all, the experimental text cannot exist in the same space as the conventions that restrict its meaning, stifle its performativity, and deny its legitimacy.


Three recent books remind us that an experiment, though it challenges elements of a familiar literary heritage, does not have to sacrifice unity of voice and vision. Karla Kelsey’s forthcoming Blood Feather, Kenji Liu’s Monsters I Have Been, and Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers skillfully dismantle received forms to offer alternative ways of creating meaning and coherence from human experience. Though vastly different in style and scope, these three innovative texts share a commitment to a unity of concept, presenting us with larger questions about the politics of language that ultimately guide and focus the generative violence of the experiment. In their hands, innovation becomes an exercise in precision, as well as a legitimate danger. As Liu writes, “The under
state / swarms our / documents. Our / lungs.”

Monsters I Have Been opens with an articulation of the artistic goals and the parameters of an invented poetic form called “frankenpo.” Liu writes in the form’s definition: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with the original texts.” As the book unfolds, the constraints and freedoms of “frankenpo” serve to unify the book’s wild flights of the imagination, as Monsters I Have Been reads as an extended exploration of the possibilities inherent in this specific literary form.

In many ways, it is the intense focus of Liu’s experiment that brings his discoveries into sharp relief. Culling text from a variety of sources, which range from screenplays to New York Times articles, feminist theory, and U.S. presidential executive orders, Liu shows us beauty and danger contained within the same turns of phrase, which can house both violence and redemption, light and unspeakable darkness. The poems in Monsters I Have Been call attention to the remarkable disconnect between language and the real world toward which it constantly gestures. At the same time, Liu frames this disconnect, the inherent arbitrariness of the signifier, as a source of agency for the creative practitioner.

Liu writes, for example, in “Thus I Have Heard,” “We are visas / in a national / drowning. / Each of us an executive / decision, pursuant to clay. / Each a subsection
 of protocol / and yet.” Here Liu reconfigures language from unspecified source texts, reminding us that intent not only shapes outcome with respect to the words we use, but also that intent can bring to light the beauty that resides just beneath the surface of a seemingly unremarkable text. For Liu, the same language can carry revelation and violence, enlightenment and oppression.

What’s more, he shows us the myriad ways that language is illuminated by conversation, dialogue, and juxtaposition. In many ways, the personae contained within Monsters I Have Been are strengthened and refined by conversation, as proximity brings a single voice into clearer focus. He writes, for instance, in “As the light diminishes again,” “To fit the average, we come / as animals, with a pocket map / of the sky and nothing under. // How the ragged hairpiece gapes / open and declares teeth.” This poem utilizes found text from Judith Butler’s theoretical writings as well as the Heart Sutra. Approached with that in mind, the poem becomes a space for dialogue in which one texture of language complicates, and calls into question, the other. As Liu himself asks, “What masks / What power”?

Much like Liu’s book, Talusan’s recent memoir, The Body Papers, reveals (and renegotiates) the politics inherent in language. Yet Talusan takes this kind of experimentation in a new direction, pairing text with found images as she investigates the authority, reverence, and doubt that we invest in various types of cultural documents. The artifacts that inhabit The Body Papers range from canceled passports to immigration forms to family photographs. As the book unfolds, these politically charged and authoritative documents are positioned in service of personal narrative, a gesture that proves as innovative as it is subversive. The hierarchies that we impose upon types of language are provocatively reversed. Talusan summons the authority of official documents, journalistic photographs, and the various traces of governmental power to further a personal narrative of risk, family ties, and discovery.

Talusan’s daring reversal of these power structures comes through most visibly in her depiction of the journey of her emigration to the United States from Manila with her parents and siblings. Describing the obstacles her parents encountered as they applied for citizenship, she writes, “I was terrified. I had never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astounded by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted onto our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.” This powerful narrative, in which the narrator realizes the precarity of what she had remembered as a joyful childhood, is spliced with images of a canceled Philippine passport and a character reference in support of an application for United States citizenship.

In many ways, the images included in The Body Papers complicate and enrich the narrative proper. By pairing this section with these specific documents, for example, Talusan evokes the stateless and liminal status of her younger self. Yet at the same time, she provocatively claims the authority and power of these documents for own narrative, a reversal of the ways in which we often shape and reshape personal narrative in the service of government procedure.

This investment in revealing and challenging the authority placed in government documents unifies a gorgeously capacious narrative. Talusan writes, for example: “Without physical proof, I started to question whether I had even written [the letters]—a psychological pattern that I think is intertwined with the immigrant experience.” As this powerful memoir unfolds, however, Talusan challenges the artificial divide culture has created between objective and subjective types of language, laying claim to both in prose as deeply felt as it is precise and sharply focused.

Kelsey’s Blood Feather, like the work of Liu and Talsuan, utilizes experimental language in service of social justice. This book-length poem, inspired by a rich store of archival material associated with women’s history, manifests as three dramatic monologues spoken by different personae. The whole of the archive is subsumed into the voices of these richly imagined narrators, with Kelsey drawing from texts that include Aristotle, Pina Bausch, Julian Beck, Richard Brody, Cheiro, and many other writers, philosophers, cinematographers, and thinkers. By challenging the fiction of the single speaker in such a way, Kelsey gestures at voice as a social construct, calling into question the myriad ways culture presupposes that ownership over language is even possible.

It is the unity of voice, remarkable given the scope and range of archival material represented in this volume, that renders Kesley’s text as sharply focused as Talusan’s narrative memoir and Liu’s extended exploration of a single form. As the book unfolds, this unity of voice and vision is revealed as integral to the poem’s deeply philosophical meaning. For Kelsey, the self, the single spoken voice, contains multitudes. She shows us, through her sharply focused experimentation, that the boundary between individual and community is porous and indistinct. She writes, for example, in Blood Feather:
the aesthetic problem of
form exists essentially and simultaneously as
a moral problem writes Deren in
An Anagram of Ideas on Art
and so how to perform an
ethical relation to the footage of

a flood mobile homes uprooted a
man in a canoe paddling after
his lowing cow the film then
cutting to the tremor of a
hand-held camera actress gagged and bound
to the bed how to punctuate
Here the speaker reflects on the ethical problems inherent in representation. If the boundary between self and other remains blurry, Kelsey asks us to consider where cultural appropriation begins when attempting to depict one’s own perceptions. In many ways, the philosophical quality of Kelsey’s poetry is in itself subversive, as she uses the artistic repertoire of poetry to claim agency over a predominantly masculine philosophical tradition. In doing so, she reminds us that despite the rigid binary distinctions that circulate within culture, alterity inevitably resides within the subject, who is a world unto herself.

If innovation is in itself a destructive gesture, can that generative violence be placed in service of activism and advocacy through language? Kelsey, Talusan, and Liu show us that the precision of the experiment constitutes its power. In each of these three collections, this dismantling of convention is placed in service of a specific philosophical question, the work an inquiry into what is possible when specific rules associated with language are renegotiated. Here, language is wielded as veiled threat, as provocative reversal, as gloriously shattered syntactic convention. Yet it is this space between words that allows us to see the light.

Image credit: Annie Spratt

This Labor Was Never for You: Sex and the Small Press

1.
It is no secret that women’s work in the small press is often read by our male colleagues as a performance of desire, a kind of masquerade that appropriates and irreverently reconstitutes the conventions of academic spaces. Through the refraction of the cis male gaze, an invitation to “contribute”—or worse, to “collaborate”—becomes, for many men, an exploration of boundaries, power, and a deeply unsettling culture of literary celebrity.

To illustrate this problem, I would like to share an anecdote that is all too commonplace in the literary community. I showed up to a colleague’s reading in a nice dress, and crossed paths with a poet, with whom I had collaborated professionally. He demanded to know what I was doing there, near that building, at exactly the same time that he was standing there. Though I explained that my colleague was giving a reading, he persisted in his belief that I was there, in a nice dress, for him.

In reality, we as women in the small press, are working. Our language, our curatorial projects, and our insights are our livelihood. Still, it has become commonplace for cis men in the literary community to read our economic sustenance and survival—as we pass through the halls of the colleges where we adjunct, as we respond to submissions, and as we organize features and roundtables—as a grand romantic gesture, as a signification of sexual accessibility, a poorly crafted pickup line written in lemon juice.

More often than not, sex is perceived as being at the very center of our interactions, when in reality, survival is the endgame, the object of every wish and fantasy. Which is to say, this work I am doing, the labor that wrecks the nerves in my seemingly delicate hands, is not, was never, intended for you.

2.
As it happens, the problem always begins in language.  Many critics have articulated, and continue to stand by, a disturbing correlation that has been drawn between the physical body and textual body, in which the poem, essay, or story is seen as an extension or appendage of its author. Within this problematic conceptual framework, when a woman solicits the work, she solicits the physical body of that writer, in all of its slouching, argyle, and undoubtedly awkward postures.

A literature survey of work published in the field of hermeneutics will return innumerable books and articles with titles like “Text as Body, Body as Text,” “The Body as Text:  A Psychological and Cultural Reading,” “The Body as Cultural Text,” and so on. When scholars speak about literature, this mindset is as deeply entrenched as it is disturbing. Variations on this same perspective range from Donald Hall referring to poetic form as “The Sensual Body” to Michael McClure describing poetics as a kind of “meat science.” Cary Nelson adeptly summarizes this discourse in a recent study, noting that “[t]he idea of the poem as body or as direct expression of psychic and physiological ratios characterizes one dominant mode of poetry…forged around the authenticity of expression guaranteed by the signifying body.”

What has this discourse meant for women? I believe that this conceptual framework has had unwanted, and deeply felt, repercussions for not only women’s poetry, but for the communities in which they strive to develop their work, learn, and mentor others.

More often than not, when we as women express intellectual interest, this curiosity is read through the lens of physical desire, and in this way we are de-intellectualized by our male peers within a small press community that claims to have democratized self-expression for all. When a woman says, I love your book, it is all too often translated by male writers as that familiar beacon of hope and wishful thinking:  I love you.

To position any text as a projection of the physical body is reductive, as it limits expression to what is material and tactile, altogether negating what Paul Ricoeur called the “symbolic” dimensions of language. Within Freudian theory, this is where meaning “crystalizes,” gaining denseness and complexity; for Pound, this rhetorical space gives rise to the “emotional and intellectual complex” that the reader then unravels. The symbolic realm is where meaning and possibility multiply, and where poetry actually happens. The danger of framing language as mere physical utterance, rather than a more complex process of signification, is that one forecloses many of the intellectual planes to which language can deliver us.

What’s more, this desire to give the material body primacy over language is as misguided as it is dangerous. It invites a kind of biological essentialism into our academic and professional spaces, a mindset that does not challenge us to examine the ways we speak about gender, sexuality, and the visceral, tangible power dynamics within these settings. As Raewyn Cowell notes, “Curiously, whatever biological mechanism was appealed to, the argument always ended up in the same place: Conventional sex roles, gender divisions of labour, and inequalities of power, were biologically determined and therefore could not be challenged. Feminist activism was coming up against nature and so, ultimately, it was futile.”

The body itself exists as a discursive construction, arguably even more so than it does as a tangible thing. After all, it is language that gives meaning, coherence, and order to our most visceral perceptions. In a recent book on corporeality and social theory, Chris Schilling goes so far as to describe the body as an “absent presence,” noting the importance of language in constituting our relationship to our physical being. L. Jeffries even claims that the “role of the body is being taken by language.”

The tendency to read women’s writing as merely a performance of physical desire becomes, then, a kind of reduction of language itself, an essentialism that diminishes the intellect, reducing the elegant metaphor to innuendo, an aesthetic gesture to suggestion, and metonymy to Nabokovian disembodiment.

3.
The Sexualization of Women’s Labor in the Small Press: A Partial Archive

“Damn.  When you said you loved my work, I thought you meant something better.”

“Your poems are like fruits, Kristina.  They’re just begging to be squeezed.”

“I knew you wanted more than just a copy of my book.”

“I like the way you break your lines.”

“Yours fondly.”

“‘sup.”

4.
In the context of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to note the relationship between textual violence and bodily violence. As Luce Irigaray notes in This Sex Which Is Not One, the breach of boundaries, and the subsequent violation, almost always begins in language. Indeed, signification often functions as a hypothetical testing ground, a separate space in which tangible boundaries and palpable relationships are forged, manipulated, or torn apart.

This is not to position language as the body, per se, but to underscore the ways language shapes our demeanor in the physical spaces we pass through in both professional and personal settings. If language, and the work we do with language, is framed as sexually charged, then this conceptual framework amplifies the potential, however muted it may be, for violation.

In his recent study, Re-Engendering Translation, Christopher Larkosh notes the tendency to “repeat physical violence through textual violence,” and to perpetuate power imbalances though one’s discursive construction of the other. I would caution anyone against thinking that physical violence is, in the end, subdued to textual violence in Larkosh’s analysis. Rather, there is an active and ongoing reciprocity between language and the visceral power dynamics between people.

Case in point: I spent three years of my young adult life corresponding with an older man, more established in his career than myself. Though he later became physically violent toward me, he first defaced my book and mailed it to me. Language was the first fire, the last light.

There is a deeply entrenched tendency among many cis men to view language through the lens of sexuality, as kind of a prerequisite for establishing power, influence, and gauging where exactly a boundary lies. In recent years, even poetry has been coopted as a kind of metonymy, standing in for what has not yet, and might never, be said between two people.

Which is to say, the free play of meaning that makes poetry beautiful has been stilled, arrested, all but frozen in place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Natalie Grainger.