We’ve all read literature in the usual forms. These forms include poems, short stories, novellas, plays and novels… but for most of us, that’s it! What other literary forms can be written? What else is out there?
That was the question posed at a recent writing workshop, or “cook off” hosted by The Public School in Durham. “The Experimental Literature Cook Off” was held on April 30, 2011 at 2:30pm, at SplatSpace in Durham, North Carolina. Participants included writers, scholars, musicians and visual artists, all of whom were interested in experimenting with literary form.
The main idea was that you could think of a work of literature as the product of a recipe. With that idea in mind, we held a “cook off” where we found or created out own recipes, tried them out, compared them and talked about what “tastes good”.
This blog post is a summary of the workshop, with some notes about what happened and some links for more reading.
Before we jumped into the cook off, I gave a few observations and examples, to set up some basic terms and to get the creative juices flowing. First, to answer the question, “what is experimental literature?” here’s an example…
"Read this Word" by Vito Acconci is not a work of “literature,” in the conventional sense, but that’s the point here. This is a work called “Read this Word” by the artist Vito Acconci. Acconci is known as a conceptual artist. For a conceptual artist, “The idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work” (Sol LeWitt). “Read This Word” is basically a recipe. When you read it, it is a set of instructions. The instructions tell you how to read the text, while you’re reading the text, and so this is a work of performance art, in a way. You, the reader, are the performer.
There are all kinds of other examples of “experimental” literature out there (see below). They fall into all kinds of academic categories like “conceptualism” and “experimental literature” and “post-modernism” and they come from all sorts of different movements like “fluxus” and “flarf”. This, however, is a “cook off” and not a textbook and so, although those categories are all very different and interesting, let’s just boil them into one stock and see what cooks out. For this cook off, I chose the word “experimental” because it seems to make sense to most people. This cook off is about kitchens and laboratories, not classrooms and offices.
Hm. What’s in this?
Before we make recipes for experimental literary forms, let’s talk about the regular recipes. A quick Google search will tell you that literary form is “the organization, arrangement, or framework of a literary work; the manner or style of constructing, arranging, and coordinating the parts of a composition for a pleasing or effective result.” Most readers are probably familiar with general forms like prose, verse and drama. Those basic forms can be served up in all sorts of ways. For example, there are hundreds of forms that a poem can take, like Haiku or Sonnet, and there are new forms all the time. Here’s a sloppy list of a whole bunch of poetic forms (until I can find or make a better one).
Sometimes, experimenting with literary form isn’t about making up a new recipe, although that’s fun. Sometimes, it’s about experimenting with an existing recipe, choosing the right one or using it in a new or interesting way.
Speaking of experiment. What exactly is an experiment, anyway? In the scientific sense of the word, an experiment is a procedure. The procedure begins with an observation about the world. Then, a hypothesis is formed about that observation or about the world. Then, you do something to test that hypothesis. Finally, you consider the results of the test and whether it proves, disproves or requires more testing the hypothesis.
Try These Recipes
Here comes the taste test. These are some recipes for literature that are experimental in some way. What do you think? Do these recipes work? Do they appeal to your tastes? Do you want to cook up any of the things described by these recipes?
Cookin’ Up Something New
At the experimental literature cook off, we decided to try several experimental recipes, and then we had a “taste test”. There weren’t any blue ribbon winners, but here are a few samples from the menu that day.
“Write a poem in the form of an index”
We tried this recipe, and found it to be a very useful way to tell large stories. In one column, you write ideas: phrases, nouns, verbs, whatever. In the other column, you indicate when (or never) you’ve encountered those ideas in your life. Depending on which ideas you choose, you can end up with a pretty interesting index of your life. One student proposed that you could use an index of another book, to determine the degree to which the ideas in that book are actually relevant to you.
“the exquisite corpse”
The exquisite corpse is an old parlor game where the players collaborate to create a drawing or text, without being able to see very much of the other collaborator’s work. We tried a variant of the recipe, where the collaborators would alternate between drawing and writing. It was fun, but the result was very much like the silly results an exquisite corpse usually produces. We thought that it might help to start with a theme or a premise. It might also be fun to allow for larger contributions than you could make in a short time, so instead of “i write a sentence and now you draw a little picture” try a larger course: “i write an essay and now you make a field recording and now you take photographs…”
“the bed-time story”
The recipe for a bed-time story is as follows: First, encourage the audience to select the subject of the story. Begin telling the story, but if the audience makes requests about the path of the story, or asks questions, the teller must be prepared to address them. The story is over when it reaches a conclusion or when the audience has fallen asleep, the later being a desirable result. This recipe is rarely repeated with identical results.
Since so much of the thinking about “interactive literature” has to do with computers, we found this simple recipe to be a tasty one.
“Explore the possibilities of riddles”
Speaking of computers, one of the recipes that came out of the cook off involves the generation of text. Using a software toolkit called RiTa, you can use a collection of riddles as source material for a new text, one that sounds something like a riddle. This “sound” is created by RiTa’s ability to generate text based on probablility. So, the words are not randomly chosen, they are chosen because they seem to be the likely “next” words. The results don’t make as much sense as real riddles, but they do sound like riddles.
1. Write a single word, followed by an ellipsis (“…”).
2. Then write a single sentence, in an existential tone.
3. Explain: how does that sentence relate to your mother or your father?
4. Repeat steps 1-3 above, as needed.