“Experimental poetry” often foregrounds form as its core site of play. In emphasizing this skin of poetry as merely language or surface, a number of white poets and white-centered institutions of poetry have escaped discourses of the body and racial identity, invoking instead a “universal” voice that somehow exceeds subject position. Innovation in form is untethered from thematic content in the quest to “Make it new.” Such claims to “novelty” are used to make claims on behalf of the avant-garde as “progressive” or even “radical”. But as Stefania Heim writes in the Boston Review, “an innovative surface does not make something politically, ethically, or even artistically radical.” This version of experimental writing neglects to note its skin color as well as its politics of exclusion.
Such evasive maneuvers are disappointing because experimental poetry and its formal play is so well suited for political expression, especially in relation to marginalized identities. Language is and has been an active site of power contestation and norm creation. Experimental poets are uniquely poised to challenge and disrupt language as a mode of resistance at the ground of language—an opportunity, perhaps, to reconfigure and even abandon “the master’s tools” to “dismantle the master’s house,” in the spirit of Audre Lorde. In the preface to Thinking Its Presence, Dorothy Wang quotes Raymond Williams in observing that there are “profound connections between formations and forms” (xxi). Throughout this course, I hope we attend to these connections—as well as the interstices and accumulations—that exist between the bodies of the poems and the bodies of their poets. In reading the text as body and body as text, a new hermeneutic emerges: a critical optic framed by empathy.