by Caroline Bergvall
Experimental or exploratory writing is a mode of thinking and of thinking roles and rules of language which inevitably has come to demand largely specialist reading habits. Yet not as systematically specialist as they have become or been made out to be. Such writing covers great disparities in practice and motivation. This small selection presents recent pieces by a few poets and text-based artists, most of whom live in England. Some are British, some are not. Some are already known to HOW2 readers, some not. Some usually present their work within literary and poetic networks, some are better known in British visual arts and performance circuits. HOW2 being a web environment, a number of the pieces were rethought and redesigned specifically for this reading environment. Where more appropriate to the work, the pieces were simply transferred from the page.
This emphasis on text practices that cut across a range of artistic and literary fields seems to me an essential ingredient in ensuring the continued pertinence of poetic work as a mode of investigation which has a part to play in public discourses on art, rather than as one kept for the research lab. In this sense, the experimental female poets and text-based artists represented in this selection seem to me to each in their way indicate a willingness to localise the rules of practice and to recognise the explicit and the implicit impact of social constructions on textual process.
The British experimental poetry scene is a stretched and resolutely unnamed map of divergent factions, mostly held together by the poets themselves and a few critics, many of whom act as their own support system, being also its publishers, editors, researchers, lecturers, conference organisers. By necessity and the lamentable conditions of funding for such work in Britain, most of this activity exists in low-key productions and hand to hand distributions which rarely make it into bookshops or national platforms. Furthermore, as investigative forms do not fit under any of the agendas set by mainstream publishers and the media, British experimental poetry is often either ridiculed or targeted as unreadable (see for instance the extreme virulence of the reviews to Iain Sinclairs 1996 anthology of contemporary experimental work, Conductors of Chaos, perceived as an aberration even by its mainstream publishers Picador).
Something else is wanting in this antagonised universe which also emphasises its isolation in relation to other writing scenes and artforms in Britain. Indeed, beyond long-standing interests in dialectical languages and local class-based histories, issues of psycho-social identity as related to body configurations, such as gendering or genderedness and the reevaluation of the workings of belonging (and of belongings) which arises from these (for instance), are only rarely explicitly acknowledged as viable methodological concerns in approaching the writing projects produced with the British experiemental poetry scene. Disparately published critical pieces provide valuable exceptions to this. Overall, to carry such identity under wraps, to conceptualise it in such a way that it doesn't show or doesn't dent form, has become an adjunct of the innovative text. More often than not it is considered an implicit responsibility of the individual poet to discuss it or bring it forward in their work and in their (conference/essay) contributions, should they so wish. As a consequence, the way some of these issues are brought forward is often as a game of hide-and-seek between having and being an identity, between strict formalist conceptual range and representational shadow games. The current, near total absence of critical journals or informal letters within this scene certainly has a part to play in this internalised silence and laisser-faire.
In this respect, Maggie OSullivans anthology of experimental English-speaking female poets Out of Everywhere (Reality Street Editions, 1996) was a fundamental gesture. It somewhat highlighted the complexities of the relationship textual modes necessarily entertain with issues of identity and representational modes (here through the axis of gender). It also made it quite clear that if, as a rule, the conversation could not be had with any continuity in Britain (neither within experimental nor mainstream circuits), it could be and was being had elsewhere. Since then, and I would suggest to a large extent through the ripple effect of her book, as well as through the increased traffic with (often more vocal and better funded) North American poets, discussions, seminars, conferences, etc., have been and are taking place to discuss the much vexed question of experimental writings relation to representational modes, and the role played by identity structures on the very nature of formal explorations. Similarly, there is a detectable restlessness for pushing on away from some of the less conducive constraints of experimental traditions, as well as for discussing textual work alongside other arts practices.
However, if in such an avant-gardist and/or neo-modernist and still largely phallocentric context there is still a suspicion of selling-out when considering issues of representation an explicit part of experimental poetics, things are not much better in the more mainstream or officially supported poetry circuits where such concerns are gathered up thematically, not methodologically, under the banner of Identity Politics. Celebrating social/cultural marginality is one of its central motifs and has been consistently promoted as such by publishing houses and the press. This unproblematised inevitability of identity provides for much text fodder and makes Equal Opps a recognised publishing criterion which shifts more books than mindsets. Such a formally conventional range and dangerously sentimental take on poetry's role is of course terminally retrograde and keeps mainstream poetry well outside the conceptual grounds explored so successfully and buoyantly by the similarly much back and diverse British visual arts and British performance art scenes of the last 15 years.
The restrictive and enduring effect of these bifurcated and resistant environments also prevents potentially fruitful dialogues between poets from a range of practices, whose formal explorations and ideological focus are at times less profoundly divergent than is immediately apparent. Andy Brown's Binary Myths (Stride, 1997 and 1999), a two volume series of conversations with poets and poet-publishers from British experimental and mainstream environments (the books also attempt to define these terms), showed up for all its faults, not only the expected irreconcilable differences but also and more surprisingly, the points of untapped common interest which run at a tangent to the profound rift between them. This is especially true of a shared and prevalent involvement in collaborative work, an increased interest in and commitment to forms of text performance, a growing awareness of the potential role of new media for writing. All of these factors generate ways of thinking about writing and of attending to reading which could potentially beleaguer the polarisation and damaging short-circuiting of poetic environments in Britain. This seems to me an additional reason why textual practice which recognises, either cross-genre input or cross-disciplinary discursivity as part of its strategies, are likely to be able to provide for an important critical and artistic leap away from the current stalemate and to open up dialogues around the nature and definition of innovation for poetry and of its public role.
Is there at present a greater willingness to question the nature of our roles as experimental poets in Britain? Perhaps there is. Certainly it would enable us to cut across the respective limitations of the specific and divided poetry scenes to slowly allow for a configuration of debates through which textual practice might be seen to excite, rather than confirm or evade, the acid fray of socio-cultural representations, which art contributes to.
Caroline Bergvall, London, January 2001
Thank you to the contributing writers for their work. With thanks to Renee Gladman for inviting this selection and to Anya Lewin for her generous attention and inventive technical assistance in helping to put some of these pieces together. Many thanks also due to Romana Huk.
BIO: Caroline Bergvall, born in 1962, lives and works in England. She has had texts featured in a number of magazines in England and North America. Her work also appears in the anthologies Out of Everywhere & Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000. Recent texts include Eclat (Sound & Language, 1996) and Goan Atom: jets poupee (rempress, 1999) to be recreated for Krupskaya (San Francisco, forthcoming 2001). Work also includes collaborations on performances and text-based installations. She is Associate Fellow in Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts.