Monday, September 17, 2018

Best American Experimental Writing 2018, ed. Myung Mi Kim


Wake up around midnight and it is raining. You soaked red lentils in a pot since before the morning. Put the pot on a burner set to high heat. In another pot pour oil then it goes on the burner set to medium heat. Each will need 45 minutes. Pour wine and pull a yellow onion from a basket. Papery flakes fall on the floor. You leave them there. Chop and drink and let tears clean your face. Drop in the cumin seeds. They sizzle and dance. Onions, more cumin, lemon, tomato, red powder, yellow powder, salt and honey get spooned into the hiss.

Combine what is in the two pots into one bowl and put it aside. Go to the porch. Smoke in the rain before you go back to sleep. (Soham Patel, “to afar from afar”)

I’m impressed with the work I’m seeing in Best American Experimental Writing 2018 (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2018), guest edited by Myung Mi Kim, having already filled columns of notebook space with the names of writers I clearly need to read more work by, including Rosa Alcalá, José Felipe Alvergue, Stine An, Genève/Geneva Chao, Julia Drescher, Biswamit Dwibedy, Jill Magi, Nicole McCarthy, Saretta Morgan, Soham Patel, MG Roberts, Asiya Wadud, Alli Warren and Uljana Wolf. And that, I might add, is barely a quarter of the contributors to this hefty anthology. Thrilled also, obviously, to see work included by Erín Moure, Kate Sutherland, Norma Cole, Stephen Collis and Layli Long Soldier (her book is so good; see my review of such here).

The highlight, for me, at least, has to be the introduction to the work of “San Francisco Bay Area educator, capacity builder, writer, and occasional porch gardener” Aja Couchois Duncan, author of the book Restless Continent (Litmus Press, 2016). Her work in the volume, a selection from a longer prose-poem, “Nomenclature, Miigaadiwin, a Forked Tongue,” is apparently also included in Restless Continent, and introduces an curious, inquiring and elegant lyric:


I should begin with adik, with reindeer and caribou. To know the geography of it, to start with its features.

Your face is this blur of fur and antler.

My story is the history of frontier, a wooded terrain. We could not see each other through the cacophony of trees. But I could hear you breathing. Some kind of wind the nose sings. Adze is stripping the layers of. When the skin is torn from muscle, cleaved from bone.

Agawaatse is not sound but shadow. An interception of light.

Best American Experimental Writing 2018 is the fourth in the series of annual volumes opening with Best American Experimental Writing 2014, a series edited and overseen by Seth Abramson and Jesse Damiani. I find it interesting to see this series in counterpoint to the Best American Poetry series, obviously, but also the Best Canadian Poetry in English series, one I’ve long been complaining about as leaning far too heavily (and nearly exclusively) into the territory of the metaphor-driven lyric, something that has actually shifted a bit, given more recent guest editor Hoa Nguyen. The American equivalent, Best American Poetry, has been more open to more experimental works, so the response of a series such as Best American Experimental Writing suggests that the country as a whole is more open to experimental writing than we are in the north (or perhaps there are simply a series of market-driven considerations I don’t really comprehend that are driving elements of the conversation on either side of the border; who knows).

For her part, it’s good to see this note from editor Kim as part of her introduction, writing that: “As with former guest editors of BAX, I chose not to include colleagues past and present, current or recent students, writers who were published in previous editions of BAX, and past editors of BAX. This means that many, many exceptional writers are not part of this volume. I made every effort to gesture towards small magazines and other publishing projects that may be less visible in the larger fabric of the discourse around experimental writing. One of my priorities in gathering material for BAX 2018 was to feature emerging writers. At the same time, recent work from some established writers made it possible to acknowledge/reframe stakes and commitments of experimental writing practices.” This is interesting in a few ways, including the fact that Kim, as well as prior editors, aren’t including work by writers who have already appeared in the series, allowing for a far more open field of contributors, one that works very deliberately to utilize the series as one of introduction, which I am very much appreciating.

CHAPTER ONE: “What’s Your Diaspora?”

            for Sean Labrador y Manzano

Imprisoned and kidnapped by Spanish galleons, my family jumped ship outside New Orleans just after the Revolutionary War and cozied up to gators in the Bayous. I am the descendent of Sugar Masters in Hawaii. My grandfather came to mine gold. My grandfathers came to build the railroads. My grandmother was one of a select few ethnically appropriate prostitutes available to minors, masters, railroad workers. My family came to California to escape oppression. My family came to California to escape famine. My grandfather was denied the right to testify in court because yellow is Mongol is Mongol is black. My grandfather was denied citizenship because he was neither black nor white. Sugar cane. Pineapple. Scabs. Death March. Churches. Nurseries. Paper sons. My grandfather fought for the U.S. against Japan. My grandfather was interned. My grandfather was a War Bride. My grandfather fled the communists for economic reasons. My grandfather was a persecuted intellectual. My grandfather was a radical dissident. My grandfather was a farm worker. My grandfather was part of the brain drain. My grandfather refused to cooperate. My grandfather got us out on a boat. My grandfather swam from Cambodia. My grandfather was a Buddhahead. My grandfather fled Vientiane on foot. My grandfather was sponsored by the church. My grandmother ran a hotel on the Turnpike. My grandmother ran a restaurant. My grandmother invented Hello Kitty. My grandfather was a victim of the Pole tax. First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave, New Wave. Reeducation camps. Educational opportunity. Sojourners. Sriracha. (Geneva Chao, “from A Comprehensive History of Asian America”)

The work included in the volume is wide-ranging, from lyric essays to testimonials to visual pieces to more traditional elements of poetry and fiction, and part of what drives the collection to be as strong as it is does include showcasing the myriad ways in which writing can exist, including some of the most incredible blends of social/political writing with language writing and the lyric. Nicole McCarthy’s “Chatter” is a fascinating text that overlays new stanzas upon what has already been presented, obscuring the text and providing a fascinating visual display of overheard voices interfering with each other; the text itself becomes ambient noise, impossible to discern. Rosa Alcalá’s fascinating essay-poem, the monologue-esqe “Voice Activation,” a piece that performs itself even while on the page, opens: “This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker.” I’m also quite taken by Stine An’s poem sequence “Orientations to Lemons, or Patience Is a Seed,” that includes:

a sun grenade
holding your hand
in oily dimples

a yellow fruit
the child of orange
bitter father, sour mother
your generic citrus from
hesperidean origins

orients occident
bright to golden
trans. mediterranean

to aver ancestry:

            c. medica (see vulgar name: citron)
            c. maxima (see vulgar name: pomelo)
            c. reticulate (see vulgar name mandarine)
            c. micrantha (see vulgar name: papeda)

our family tradition is evergreen ever rue-ful
we bear bitter seeds in deep wombs (“LEMON: AN ORIENTATION”)

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