Quarter After Eight is an annual literary journal devoted to the exploration of experimental writing in all its permutations. We celebrate work that directly challenges the conventions of language, style, voice, or idea in literary form. This blog is a place to engage in conversations about the work we publish, as well as the work that inspires us.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Emotional Laughghter and Experimental Poetry

by Jen Schomburg Kanke 
           A  recent study published in Neuroimage, a journal focusing on brain function as researched via imaging and modeling techniques, reported that not all fun-stuffs are processed in the same portion of the brain. Through the magic of the MRI, the team of researchers, led by Diana P. Szameitat and Benjamin Kreifelts at the University of Tübingen in Germany, discovered that laughter associated with tickling is processed in a different part of the brain than what is referred to as "emotional laughter" such as experienced during joy or "taunts" (which the study doesn't describe in detail but I can only imagine were something like middle school "your mama wears combat boots" contests). The findings suggest that taunting and joyful laughter ask the subject to do more work in the social cognition department than tickling which may point to the answer to some evolutionary mysteries (which are so mysterious that I was completely unaware of them before reading the study and only half understand after reading it). Which got me wondering: What would my MRI look like if I were hooked-up while reading some of my favorite experimental poetry?
            When reading David Trinidad's "Gloss of the Past," I could almost guarantee that it would light up the anterior rostral medial frontal cortex (arMFC), our little gray house of processing social cues and interactions. This poem, constructed using only the names of eighty-seven lip gloss colors from the 1960s, leads the reader through the many stages of a relationship from "Pink Dawn" and "Aurora Pink" to the harder days of "Stark Raving Pink" and finally to the heartfelt  call of "Viva La Pink." Found in Trinidad's 2007 collection The Late Show (Turtle Point Press), "Gloss of the Past" sits alongside of poems like "All This, and Heaven Too," a poem comprised of Bette David film titles, as well as more traditional narrative pieces such as "Watching the Late Movie with My Mother." I chuckle along with the poem not only because of turns the relationship itself takes with the vulnerability of "Sweet Young Pink," "Fragile Pink," and " Fainting Pink" coming so soon after the bolder moment of  "Skinnydip Pink," but also because lip gloss colors aren't usually thought of as fodder for art. The juxtaposition clicks in my asMFC as hilarity of the highly-evolved social animal sort (perhaps not in yours though, this particular study kept mum on issues of taste).
            But I'm a little foggier about what might be going on in my brain when I view poems such as Aram Saroyan's poem "lighght" from 1965. When I see this poem, I laugh not only because I think it's joyfully ballsy as hell to call it a poem (the title of the poem and its complete text are one in the same), but also because I can't help laughing when I try to say the word. Although Richard Hell proclaimed the poem unpronounceable in a 2008 New York Times review of Saroyan's Complete Minimal Poems (Ugly Duckling Press), I think it can be pronounced. Try it with me now. Start to say the word "light" but then double-up on that open space in the middle of the word. Whoa! What just happened? Did you feel that? To try to pronounce the word creates a moment of forced laughter in the reader's body. It's as if the poem has reached out and tickled us deep down inside where no mere fingers could ever reach.
Thinking about this makes me want to open up my brain and take a good look inside. Am I processing this poem in the area of social cognition or is it getting me in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) which deals more with emotional readings of physical stimuli (such as facial gestures and tickling)? However, since it's unlikely that my health insurance will cover such a procedure (even though laughter is the best medicine), this may need to be one mystery that goes unsolved, yet my soul is considerably lighghter for having considered it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What Is (If There Is) Midwest Poetry?

In QAE 16, John Bradley offered this piece of is-it-a-poem-or-is-it-literary-criticism, in which he asks “What is (if there is) Midwest poetry?” Whatever it is, it’s provocative and it’s beautiful. But QAE lives in the Midwest, so we may be biased.

“If I Say It Is”: An Unscientific Survey in Response to the Question “What Is (If There Is) Midwest Poetry?”
John Bradley

Carl Sandburg: “I asked the professors who teach the meaning of meaning and they told me about their lawns.”

Lorine Niedecker: “I was born where I was born water borne.”

Jeff Tweady: Who gave you my e-mail address?”
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan: “You won’t believe all the poems I’ve been writing since I got here.”

Lisel Mueller: “It must have a belly button and an anus.”

Arielle Greenberg: “Did you know that Kafka washed his hands before he went to the bathroom?”

Nin Andrews: “An orgasm knows no east or west.”

Vachel Lindsay: “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom.”

Edgar Lee Masters: “They still read Spoon River? Really?”

James Tate: “I think it’s now made in China.”

Lucien Stryk (Or Possibly Shinkichi Takahashi): “Don’t wear argyle socks at a convention of arsonists.”

Lorine Niedecker: “In a spoon in a church in a janitor’s closet in a spool of thread on the edge of a hospital bed on the spine of a book of do-it-yourself plumbing repair.”

Robert Bly: “Wasn’t that you  in the hammock on Duffy’s farm?”

Meridel LeSeuer: “Ask the corn. Ask the milkweed. Ask the idiot who keeps asking the same thing over and over.”

Bob Dylan: “A democracy of the tired.”

Jim Harrison: “I dreamed that I dreamed I was giving birth to a crow who asked me what I was doing dreaming this dream.”

Ted Kooser: “You’re asking the wrong geranium.”

Oprah: “Who gave you my email address?”

Jesse Ventura: “You should ask the Dalai Lama.”

The Dalai Lama: “You ask funny questions.”

Vachel Lindsay: “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom.”

Donald Hall: “I once put together an anthology of Midwest poetry. But no one wanted to publish it. Not even publishers in the Midwest.”

Gwendolyn Brooks: “Articulated, syncopated silence.”

Leon Kottke: “I never heard that played on a lead-pipe flute before.”

George Kalamaras: “Wash your Ganges every day.”

Laura Bush: “All poetry is American poetry.”

Bucky Halker: “It sounds so much better on steel guitar.”

Mary Bradley: “I don’t know anything about poetry, John. You know I prefer crossword puzzles.”

Lorine Niedecker: “In the tiny spider dangling from the tip of this pen.”

Kent Johnson: “Who can say what’s poetry and what’s not?”

Joan Cusack: “Who gave you my cell number?”

Billy Corgan: “Are you still trying to figure that out?”

Garrison Keillor: “There was a young poet from Winona, who was always composing a sestina, wherever he went, he added its scent, and now he delivers pizza.”

Liz Phair: “You never know what you’ll find in the dumpster.”

Catfish Keith: “The Washed Out, Blown Away, Dried Out, What’s That Smell Midwest Blues.”

Maria Sabina: “Place a pinch between your cheek and gum.”

John Prine: “Just cuz.”

Georgia O’Keeffe: “Watch your top knot.”

Ernest Hemingway: “And you yourn.”

Sandra Cisneros: “The Midwest is every place. There is no such place as the Midwest.”

Mavis Staple: “Honey, if I say it is, it is.”

Vachel Lindsay: “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom.”

Your answer in the comments space below...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Flash Interview with Jaswinder Bolina

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of very short interviews with writers. Jaswinder Bolina is the author of Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry. His poem "Apologia Matilde" appears in QAE 17.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Review of Annie's Ghosts

A review from Brittany Claytor:
The Steve Luxenberg's Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret starts with simple things, a phone call and a letter about flowers on a grave. Steve Luxenberg discovers through a series of accidental occurrences that his mother, Beth, was not the only child she claimed to be but had an institutionalized younger sister, Annie. In his nonfiction work Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, Luxenberg takes a leave from his job as a journalist for the Washington Post to discover what he can about this mysterious younger sister, who suffered from both physical and mental disabilities. His mission becomes not only uncovering who Annie was and why she was physically sequestered in various mental institutions for thirty-two years, but also learning why her memory was suppressed.
Luxenberg’s search takes him from the steerage berths of early 1900s trans-Atlantic ships to Holocaust-era Ukraine to the overcrowded corridors and rooms of Eloise Hospital, home of Detroit’s mentally ill, disabled, and indigent in the later half of the nineteenth century, during institutionalism’s waning years in America. Negotiating medical privacy and records laws that resemble Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dicken’s Bleak House, Luxenberg struggles with his own imperfect memories and the imperfect memories of those who knew about Annie:
Just as secrets have a way of breaking loose, memories often have a way of breaking down. They elude us, or aren’t quite sharp enough, or fool us into remembering things that didn’t quite happen that way. Yet much as a family inhabits a house, memories inhabit our stories, make them breath, give them life. So we learn to live with the reality that what we remember is an imperfect vision of what we know to be true. (10)
One of the book’s particular strengths is Luxenberg’s ability to look at the broader historical context of the events and time periods that affect his individual family’s story. Annie’s Ghosts is also a story of what might have been. Luxenberg investigates how Annie’s diagnosis, her treatment, and her place in the family and their Detroit neighborhood would be different had she been born today.
As he attempts to synthesize new knowledge about his family’s past, Luxenberg realizes that, while the desire for freedom in life may be rational, it is “rarely uncomplicated, in desire or reality” (316). Everyone involved in Annie’s life desires freedom--from physical and mental disabilities; from poverty and ignorance; from shame, stigma, and the past--and the family’s collective desires for freedom intersect to institutionalize Annie and her memory. Luxenberg’s desire for freedom from ignorance about his family and his past motivate his own search, but many of his questions lack definitive answers. While both Luxenberg and the reader emerge from the story with a clearer, deeper understanding of the forces--societal and familial--that buried Annie and her memory, the understanding remains imperfect. In the end, both Luxenberg and the reader are left with an understanding built from flawed memories and the anguished decisions made by flawed yet empathetically human, individuals.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review of Suzanne Collins's Mockingjay

A review by Claudia Auger:

            If you love experimental literature, you may be thinking about the literary fare available to the young adult readers in your life. And if you are eager to find some alternatives to vampire-angst, you might consider the recently-released third and final chapter of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, which lives up to the success of its two predecessors. Picking up after her escape in Book 2 of the series, the adventures of the seventeen-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen will thrill both young adult and adult readers.
In a postnuclear world, the rulers of a region referred to as "the Capitol" have divided the remaining humans into twelve districts. The Capitol rules these districts by limiting and relegating communication and interaction between them. Every year, a boy and girl under seventeen are selected from each of the twelve districts to compete in a fight to the death. The districts and the Capitol view these bloody battles on television; last boy or girl standing is declared the victor. The "Hunger Games" event serves to subjugate the Twelve Districts and to make their inhabitants feel helpless.
            The storyline resumes in Mockingjay by once again centering on the two-time survivor of the "Hunger Games," Katniss Everdeen. Following the events of the preceding novels, Katniss must overcome the sadness resulting from her separation from her current lover, politically collaborate with a former lover, and decide whether she will participate in, and be a mascot for, the resistance movement against the Capitol and its district control.           
            The novel offers the reader both romantic intrigue and exhilarating battles. The only false note is the repeated trope of Katniss's absent mother. In most young adult fiction, a girl's mother's absence--either physical or emotional--spurs the journey from the familiarity of home to the outside world. Collins attempts to bring Katniss's mentally and emotionally distant mother back into the events of Mockingjay after her remoteness in both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. However, the suggestion that she has had any shaping effect on Katniss's strong personality arises far too late in the series.
            But this minor flaw is more than redeemed by the sensitive portrayal of the teenaged Katniss as an individual prone to fits of melancholia and feelings of helplessness in a hostile world. She experiences not only victory but extreme sadness, violence, and death. Instead of presenting these events in a hopeless light, Collins uses them to propel Katniss's growth into adulthood. And the author does not ignore the intense feelings of love, longing, and attraction so present in the lives of teenagers. Collins offers motifs her young readers can relate to, making this futuristic novel one of the most emotionally realistic and accessible fictions in the vampire-dominated world of young adult literature.  

Friday, March 25, 2011


As a journal of innovative literature committed to publishing formal experimentations, Quarter After Eight has, for the past seventeen years, avoided genre distinctions. Although we love genre-bending, blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction poses some ethical, if not aesthetic, problems for some of our readers.
For example, in volume 17 we published a piece about drug abuse, child abuse, prison, and family by Tasia M Hane-Devore that may be fiction or may be nonfiction. The editors don’t know, the readers don’t know. Does it matter? Does the piece have a different impact if you assume the speaker is fictional? Here’s an excerpt from “So.”:
That evening my brother calls me from the payphone saying he’s found Godcapital- G, “This is it I need you to pray for me I wrote my entire autobiography eighteen pages I miss mom and dad.”

 They died last year. I don’t pray, but I am superstitious, which amounts to the same thing. I tell him I’ll pray for him right after he gets his shit together. He goes to prison meetings where they pray for souls, not bodies, which is what he needs praying for. His soul hasn’t broken into apartments and cars or stabbed a guy or smoked hash with our parents or faked getting shot for the sympathy of it.

“Oh it hurts,” he moans.

“Give me a break,” I say. True. Give me a motherfucking break.

Because it seems problematic to invite readers to assume in cases like this that the speaker is a writer talking about her real life or alternatively to assume that such pain is fictional, the editors are considering changing the layout on our table of contents for volume 18 to make such distinctions clear. However, we wonder if doing so might undermine other formal experiments that capitalize on this gray area. Are the facts in Cheyenne Nimes “D River” more evocative because they aren’t bogged down by that coldly formal label “Nonfiction.” Here’s a taste of her undefined lyricism on water pollution:

…the more than 800 million acre-feet of water raining onto the earth each day we save in rain buckets, tinfoil baking sheets, bowls gingerly set below gutters because nearly all the Earth’s water is in oceans (97%) where it does no good to drink; continuing past every last river great and small- the Amazon, Zaire, Congo, Orinoco, the King River- the most polluted river in all of Australia- if there were a way to split the skull to release the spirit- its acid rain, the mining that continues to be highly toxic to marine life, a great many fish were left on the banks- though the river is forced to stay within its banks, trapped, don't make eye contact when you back away slowly…

And what about stories that are also poems, poems that are also essays, essays that are also poems?  Are efforts at formal experimentation undermined by genre categorization?

Readers, what do you think?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In her essay, “The Thing and I: Some Theoretical Matters for Contemporary Writing” (QAE 17) Janis Butler Holm reflects on the hybrid nature, not just of our contemporary literature, but of our contemporary beings and reviews some of the key theories that embrace and complicate whatever feelings we might have about being cyborged to our apps. Here’s just a taste of that overview:

In this complex theory, agency is located neither in humans, generally referred to in other theoretical frameworks as subjects, nor in nonhumans, generally referred to in other theoretical frameworks as objects. Rather, actor-network theorists locate agency in various confederations of people and other kinds of matter. So-called human activity, then, is actually an enactment of alliances among numerous materials, generating a network of relations.

Actor-network theory bears some similarities to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of rhizomatics in A Thousand Plateaus—that is, their more global view of the contemporary world as acentered, nonhierarchical systems of connection, heterogeneity, proliferation, difference, rupture, and multiplicity. But I am particularly interested, here, in their notion of the human being as a desiring machine—as presented in Anti-Oedipus, a book of “materialist psychiatry” (their term). For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is not a response to, is not occasioned by, the lack of something. Rather, it is a productive force—in their terms, a machine that moves to connect to another machine. And desire is not something to be sublimated, as in Freud’s model. Instead, it is a pleasurable movement to appropriate and incorporate that which is not oneself, in some ways similar to Nietszche’s will to power and to the drives of the developing infant in traditional object relations theory.    

What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

But Holm does not bemoan this brave new world. Rather, she points out the tremendous opportunities it provides for work like that of Kathy Acker, David Salle, and Patti Smith. “For all of these artists, hybridity meant opportunity. Acknowledging our entanglement with things and other people—and our determination by things and other people—made for an energetic and subversive innovation.”

So, for all you cyborgs out there, how does the humanomechanical experience affect your work?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Forms for Grief

In “The Experimental Essay and Personal Trauma: Navigating the Gaps” (QAE 17), his reflection on the difficulties of writing about his wife and son, who died in a car accident, Joel  Peckham describes how narrative, a form he had once trusted failed him:
The problems came when I turned to face the lives of my wife and son, to try to put down who they were, how they lived. When I tried to tell their stories, I found I couldn’t do it. The direct gaze was painful and fraught with too much pressure. I felt that I needed to write eulogies and couldn’t.
And I felt that anything I had to say would be a failure. After a while I began to realize that the attempt to tell a story was the problem—one only exacerbated by a therapeutic culture that sees grief and recovery as a process with a beginning, middle, and end and “identity as a narrative achievement.” Still, as I wrote about my experiences, I began to distrust the appropriateness and even the honesty of linear narrative.
By writing essays that were “frenetic, unsettled … episodes from different moments in time, poems and pieces of poems, scholarly inquiry, and flights of fancy and fantasy” Peckham found a way to avoid “termination—a forestalling of the inevitability of death through a series of moves that continually pull the plot back to the beginning.” Peckham’s  “sequences of narrative fragments that drove towards indeterminacy were, Peckham writes, “inherent ‘failures,’” but he means that in a good way.  “I don’t believe I succeeded in creating an understanding of who Cyrus and Susie were. I was, in fact, actively resisting that impulse…They were not, I insisted, characters in a story.”

He goes on to celebrate the possibilities experimental forms created as he wrote about grief and trauma:
Non-linear form allowed me to create with honesty. Not only could I fully play with repetition and to, as Freud wrote, “make ever more complicated detours,” I could continue to cycle back and forth and resist closure—and death. More importantly the form performed the paralyzing difficulties at the heart of the play. All non-linear narrative must deal with silence. Must deal with the sudden stops and starts and the gaps in-between…

So many of us who write face this struggle to tell the story of our lives even as we realize our lives are not stories, our loved ones are not material, our grief doesn’t end with a single epiphanic nugget of wisdom. Does this mean linear narrative is an inherently flawed form for the expression of personal trauma? Is experimental writing uniquely suited to these sorts of subjects?  Peckham doesn’t go so far as to give yes or no answers to these questions, but he does insist that avoiding linear narrative is not the same thing as avoiding truth, clarity, or genuine communication with readers.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gurlesque Poetics

In her essay “On the Gurlesque” (QAE 17), Arielle Greenberg proposes that there is a new sub-genre of poetry, the Gurlesque, making waves in contemporary writing. She describes this sub-genre as poetry that:

…incorporates and rejects confession and lyricism, veers away from traditional narrative, and employs a postmodern sensibility invoking brand names, cultural ephemera and dark humor.

None of that is terribly unusual in American poetry right now—in fact, it kind of defines Stephen Burt’s own aesthetic term, “elliptical poetry”—but what strikes me as distinct in this work is a specifically girly, kitschy tone that is emotionally vulnerable but tough and crass, with a wry, perverse take on sexuality, a dark interest in the corporeal, all haunted by the ephemera and attitude of girlhood: this work puts the “femme” in feminism.

She elaborates:

In Gurlesque poems, language wallows in muck and menstrual fluid, but also in sequins and ponies: Gurlesque poets risk reveling in both cuteness and grossness. The Gurlesque prankishly celebrates the same cultural trappings it seeks to critique: it has fun with the idea of the feminine, makes fun of it, drags it around by its neck, puts it on and takes it off like drag. As a means of conveying the visceral experiences of gender, Gurlesque poems are non-linear and conversational, dreamy and campy, and they can be discomforting, often shocking, about sexuality and the body.

As fun, riveting, and evocative as her examples of this poetry are, Greenberg’s literary criticism raises important aesthetic and political questions. Greenberg herself opens up the conversation with the following questions:

Can male poets be Gurlesque? …
How does the Gurlesque play out in other global cultures with their own histories around feminism—for example, what’s the relationship between the American Gurlesque and the Gothic Lolita subculture in Japan, or the fairytale-inspired writing of younger women poets in Sweden?
Will the Gurlesque have lasting power as an aesthetic?
Has the aesthetic already peaked?
What does a Third Wave feminist poetics look like, anyway?

Do you have answers? Additional questions? Share them here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Parody and Play in Postmodern Literature

Friedrich Durenmatt’s play The Physicists is an unusual sort of absurdist play. It has a setup common among Theatre of the Absurd: A fascist organization uses euphemistic language to disguise their brutality, and pseudo logic to promote fear and further their power-grubbing agenda. What makes Durenmatt’s play special is the choices he affords his main character in light of the fascist agenda.

Ionesco’s Rhinocerus ends with the Berenger as apparently the sole human who has not caught rhino-itus. He’s the only person left who hasn’t submitted to the fear-induced mob mentality, and we are left to presume that whatever life he has left will be spent in misery. Stoppard’sRosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead similarly revolves around two characters running up against human limitations to affect their own narrative. As in the original Hamlet, they are bit players, left to crack jokes from the sidelines, to act their parts as gears to the larger narrative.

In The Physicists, Durenmatt’s main character, Möbius, is a physicist (surprise) who has uncovered certain principles that would be highly useful to a certain fascist governments' agendas to dominate the world (cue: evil laugh). In an attempt to hide these secrets and to prevent much pain and suffering, he poses as insane and is put into a sanatorium. The fascists do not give up so easily, and in an ingenious plot, send two of their own physicists to said sanatorium (to gain admission, they proclaim to believe they are Einstein and Newton) with a mission of extracting secrets from Möbius’s frail mind. Ridiculousness ensues, until Möbius’s family visits and in order to preserve his deception, Möbius is forced to deceive them as well.

Here’s the unique part: rather than begrudgingly putting on a show of insanity and then despairing of his own powerlessness, Möbius embraces that which he still has power over. He uses his “false” identity (his “insanity” is that he believes King Solomon visits him) to sing a song filtered through his Solomon alter-ego with veiled references to his sadness over losing his family. Unlike other absurdist plays, The Physicists’ main character is empowered by the fallibility of identity. He alone possesses the truth behind his song. It is a private victory, but still larger than any other absurdist play would allow.

This empowerment can only exist in a play as full of play and artifice as The Physicists is. The plot is that of a bad murder mystery (I skipped that part in the interest of space). The double-agent spy/physicists, the ridiculous play with names -- these are all things that characters in most absurdist plays fight against. In The Physicists, they are the perpetrators of the identity games, and in their perpetration, exemplify the freedom that postmodernity (or whatever label you want to attach to the way we experience life today) begets. Without an integrating principle in which to calcify our sense of identity, we are free to play, and what better way to illustrate this freedom than through parody? The question is, why isn’t there more artifice, more parody, more theatrics in modern fiction? Or is there?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Silkscreen+Poetry: Ben Chlapek+Rich Smith

The premise: Ben draws/prints images based on my poems. We were hoping Ben's childish aesthetic and we'll say "youthful" script would play well with my jumpy, excited voice.

What happened: Lots of late night promises. Lots of me decrying the state of poetry. Lots of saying things like "we have to make artifacts!” Lots of burritos in the late afternoon the day after. But mostly lots of living in Ben's head, lots of Ben living in my head, lots of not worrying about our “work,” lots of being happy about doing something for the fun of it, lots of relief from the solitude and pressure that often accompany the composition process of both arts.

Question: Do the different fonts undercut the poem? Would the poem be incredibly uninteresting without the fonts? Do both mediums work in tandem to create an interesting artifact? Does one art add prestige to the other? My friend "Jassie Bowles" says, "child's play."

Ben spends hours (yes, hours) on InDesign meticulously choosing which scribbly "y" to use out of a mess of scribbly ys. He would write a poem down on the sheet of paper, and then he would repeat letters he deemed unsatisfactory. A page might look like this:


This is my poem about you.
I like you.

P p P T T T m m m mm

Playing with motifs! We thought that the images could resonate not just with each poem, but with themselves. Risk: playing "find the button" on every page, could set off Where's Waldo impulse in reader, might not "work."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Teaching Experimentally

Many of those who write also teach and many of those who teach follow a familiar workshop methodology. In his essay “Writers of Experiment,” which appeared in the volume 17 feature on the future of experimental writing, Richard Sonnenmoser wonders why there are so few experiments in the pedagogy of creative writing and shares his own experience trying to break away from the workshop model:

“Once, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I co-taught an experimental writing course, Lex Ed: The Art of Dictionarymaking. My co-teacher, compositionist Sarah Stanley, and I wanted to teach a class where students would write original, novel definitions. We wanted to teach experimentally, too, so our only pedagogical plan was for everyone to write and share; we’d all offer critique. Eventually we’d publish the definitions. Two weeks into the term, we created our syllabus.

We decided as a class on February 13, 2007 that we will be collaborating to produce a textual dictionary whose project will be to define many of the “weeds” of the English language. The Weeds Dictionary (working title) was born during our discussion of Jill Lepore’s The New Yorker article on lexicographer Noah Webster, “Noah’s Mark.” More specifically, our idea sprang from Lepore’s citation of Joseph Dennie, editor of the Gazette of the United States, a vocal critic of Webster’s project. “If, as Mr. Webster asserts,” Dennie editorializes, “it is true that many new words have already crept into the language of theUnited States, he would be much better employed in rooting out those anxious weeds, than in mingling them with the flowers.”

In producing Rooted: An Alternative Dictionary we wanted to take Dennie’s metaphor—some words are weeds, others are flowers—and to twist it and play with it until we’d created a dictionary of (and for?) the weeds. Colleagues would sometimes ask what our students were writing. After a while I found a facile answer: prose poems. By definition, we were doing experimental writing. Yet during class meetings we used a workshop model popular in the U.S. since the 1940s. We had a syllabus with an attendance policy. We met in a classroom on campus. Without much resistance, without really discussing it, we’d fallen into prose poetry; we were making art objects with the English language. So what exactly was the experiment?”

Have you ever been in or taught a creative writing class that successfully employed methods other than workshop? What are the best and worst experiences you’ve had in traditional workshops?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ever-Smaller Screens of Comprehension

At our AWP panel on experimental writing this past February a lively conversation arose about the experiments technology and new media are making possible. In Volume 17, Joe Bonomo writes about a childhood memory from fractured perspectives that include those seen through the lens of Wikipedia, Twitter, the Track Changes function on a Word document. He writes:
Near the swing set during recess. N. on the swings. She swung and her plaid skirt lifted and I saw her sky-blue underwear. She squealed.
Mon Sep 20 11:01:23 2010 via web

Joe Bonomo is remembering N. on the swing set and that thing that happened.
4 hours ago clear

st&ing nr d swing set durin recess @ st andrew d apostle. N. s on d swings. she pumps her lgz n grips d chain n leans bac n d wind n her hair streams n she swings upward n her plaid skirt lifts +I C her sky-blue undies.  

Later in the essay he adds:
Tweets, updates, emails, texts, confessional, autobiographical. Montaigne in his tower; me at my computer. Have we reached the saturation point? Ur-stories are collapsing on top of other ur-stories. We must be made to matter. Will the future of personal writing be composed of images, flash, tinier paragraphs, infinitely more pixels, infinitely more memory, smaller screens of comprehension?

Though the essay makes use of these ever-smaller screens of comprehension, it also celebrates the search for a holistic understanding all these screens complicate, but don’t necessarily obliterate. Bonomo quotes Degas: “It is very well to copy what one sees; it’s much better to draw what one has retained in one’s memory. It is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory.”

Post-modernisms, deconstructionism, so many other theoretical –isms have insisted our reality has become increasingly fractured, mutable, and uncertain. Literature only reminds us that all an illusion. Is it delusional to think the chaos of new media in collaboration with imagination and memory might provide a way to make our lives matter again? Is it naïve to believe in a saturation point where fragmented perspectives coalesce into a fixed meaning?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is Experimentation Passe?

It got quiet here at the QAE blog in the past few months. That’s because we were busy putting together the new issue (if you’ve subscribed, it should arrive in your mailbox any day now). Volume 17 includes a critical feature, “The Future of Creative Writing.” We’ll be excerpting from the many thoughtful essays in that feature here on the blog, but today we’d like to give you a chance to respond to the questions we asked a number of writers:
“Ezra Pound’s admonition to 'make it new' is nearly a century old. The prose poem is over one hundred years old, language poetry is settling into its middle age, even flash fiction and the lyric essay are comfortably familiar; yet these modes dominate our conversations about experiments in literature. We find ourselves in the paradoxical position where radical experimentation has become a predictable norm. Moreover, in recent years the term experimental has been used to describe an increasingly specific range of familiar and canonical forms that emphasize language over narrative and fragmentation over linearity.... Are there are other ways to define experimental writing? What new forms or variations will the next generation of writing bring? Where do we go from here?”
Writers, what do you think? Readers, what do you want to read?