Travis Macdonald's aptly titled "Bookquet" is a found poem project that documents the visible type on paper flowers that were used as decorations in Macdonald's own wedding celebration. The project might be described as aleatoric, in the same spirit as Cage's improvisations; however, I remain struck by the ambivalence of language gleaned from flower-shapes. On the one hand, these selections from "Bookquet" encourage readers to make connections across arbitrary breaks in meaning. On the other hand, the project reminds us of the strange way that deliberateness in one dimension often produces chaos in another. The careful folding that has created a flower from paper also produces "Embassy where a convoy / the con was even."
I imagine these paragraphs from j/j hastain's Letters to the Divergents as genetically modified organisms that have escaped a secret government lab. Here are your dinosaur chickens, your chupacabras, those darling and disturbing phosphorescent rabbits running amok. Yet, for the intense strangeness of these poems, hastain's speaker takes a measured, calculating approach. Readers will find a beloved informs each of these poems, as well as the urge to reorder the world after it has already fallen apart. Hastain has added to these epistolary experiments the additional heading of "A Cryptozoologic for Xems," a project of capturing and studying after an experiment has exploded its controls. This particular cryptozoologic is a field experiment exploring what hastain, in an introduction to the project, calls "[s]weet divergents: animals, mysteries or other aspects of existence that I feel have inspirational qualities (like xems do) even though they are reviled, disliked or simply not accepted by the status quo."
Daniel Bosch's work shows us that experiments in poetry almost always imply experiments in form. The two poems published here, "To Lis-" and "Maturity," speak to and about Lisa, a beloved who is sometimes distant and cold, sometimes dear and familiar, and sometimes the winner of Delta Delta Delta wet t-shirt contests. "To Lis-" is written in the form versos de cabo razos, made particularly famous in the opening to Don Quixote, in which a dash substitutes for the last syllable of every line. The effect is reminiscent of l337 speak, a typographic gesture that simultaneously conceals and teases with obfuscation. The dash stands in for Lisa as both metonym and metaphor: at once the registration of unfulfilled desire and of the ineffable, the dash marks both absence and presence.
The word "experiment" derives from Latin. It might refer to an event that involved some kind of action. It also might refer to any gesture that signifies effort, a big toe thrust into freezing water. The word can be a noun or a verb: a thing born of action or action itself. Experimental poetry could be said to be both event and action, at once a registry and call for new experiences. In this week's issue, The Offending Adam offers its readers selections from Marthe Reed, Daniel Bosch, Travis Macdonald, and j/j hastain. Each day, a different experiment will be published for our readers to review. Or, perhaps it's better to say that each selection will be published for our readers to try. Today's selections from Marthe Reed's "After Swann" project remind me that the word "experiment" always implies "to try." These poems attempt. They essay. Their beauty stems from a gestural quality, the poetic equivalent of flecked paint or sound swatches. These poems demand that we read them as abstract and concrete entities simultaneously. They never quite cohere into the definite shape of narrative or argument; however, these lyrics still sing with self-conscious physicality. Their sound, their gestural power remains present precisely in the absence of coherent meaning.
With what voice do I want to read out loud from The Self Unstable? Do I read with a full-throated Poetry voice or a playful wink-wink voice or with the voice of an oracle or a mystic hippie fortuneteller? I can’t decide, and maybe that’s part of the instability to which the title of this work alludes. Who is the self in these declarative prose poems? Elisa Gabbert uses the force of her tone and sentence structures to create authority, despite the fact that the identity of the speaker is neither fixed nor always recognizable. At the junction of aphorism, confession, and armchair philosophy, these prose poems delight in their ability to make profundity flippant and flip profound. Gabbert writes, “History is the news via consensus.” The speaker here doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, nor does she say it in a new or nuanced way. This axiom could, at first, be met with a little eye roll, with a “duh.” But Gabbert subverts the power of her declarative tone by playing with the declaration: “And then they add mood music.” And then I laugh out loud.
I have a new phone and none of my contacts made it over. A weird thing has begun happening – I receive thoughtful, intimate text messages from friends and am not able to place them. When I was a kid I knew my friends’ numbers; now, maybe, with Google and the area code I can suss out a vague idea of who might have sent a text. Of course I could just ask, but sometimes it’s nice to show up at the Cineplex and be surprised. I have to keep myself amused. Yesterday, when preparing Devon Branca’s introduction, I received this text: “You were in my long weird dream. Something about babysitting a kid before he moved to Helsinki, a parade, a house that had lots of ladders and lofts, and little bright plastic animals.”
In an age where the “Make it New” credo dictates the aesthetic motivations of American poetry, Mike Dockins may strike someone as a fairly classical, even traditional poet. No, he does not write in blank verse and end-rhyme like Christopher Marlowe. His hefty and robust prose-poems will attest to the fact that he is very much alive and present with all of us here in the twenty-first century. Dockins' poems, however, feel very traditional, not in a tired, unsurprising, or expected sense. To better articulate what I mean, take three lines from the second stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus”:
When we read Leigh Phillips's poems, we quickly find ourselves reading more than poems. We are reading a person's nerves. We, like the men behind liquor store counters in Phillips's first poem, come to know the speaker through her lyric meditations on living in the wake of losing something beautiful. These poems are deeply pained, and in reading that pain, we find that there is something at the bottom of it all, something redeeming about the act of exposing: “Ask me about the time I was angelic in 2006, and I'll tell you where she touched me. Ask me about the aurora borealis.” At the center of these poems is a belief in transformation through telling, that through bearing witness to ones own pain, rebirth can be made possible. Phillips sings dark, haunted songs that fall asleep on trains and wear language like skin. Poems that dream and drink. Poems humming electric that spark and pop when you touch them.
As digital forms of publishing continue to proliferate, those of us who love the book as a physical object can only feel somewhat uneasy. Will that visceral pleasure I get from holding a book, feeling the weight of the pages, and understanding that writing is the creation of an object begin to vanish? (I say this knowing that, as an editor of an online journal, I am part of this evolution.) But then I see poems like Brian Teare's here, and I wonder if the digital form will spawn a new poetic approach that seeks to create writing as an object through form and content. The title of the first poem is not a title at all; it's a description of the form on which the poem is written: "watercolor and graphite on paper, fifteen by fifteen inches." The poem is formally constructed so that a page becomes visible within the poem itself; the digital form of publication falls away, secondary to the object that the poem creates of itself as it is being read: "thought takes shape." And the thought that takes shape through the tangibility Teare fashions is the knowledge of the body, "a strangely spacious framework / in which to consider the mortal." The poems create bodies as the bodies in the poems struggle with survival. Teare asks "how can I own something I am?" The devastating answer these poems hand us as we leave is: "our looking is what we see / its tension its signature."
A charm a single charm is doubtful. This sentence, taken from Gertrude Stein's "Nothing Elegant," has always struck me with its playful skepticism: In an era of mass production and mass reproduction, can any object or experience really be called singular? Kathryn Cowles poses a similar question in this week's selection. I was there, she'll tell you. Breathing original air. But then she'll acknowledge it's already a copy, this postcard that gives the poem its name. Cowles' various objects—a transcript, a postcard, a map—are all copies of copies. We know how Plato would worry about such attachments. But Cowles reminds us that something to keep is also always something to give. And these are generous poems.