Who are the Contemporary American Surrealists and what do they want?
Gulf Coast has a conversation with Heather Christle, Hannah Gamble, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder on Surrealism:
Gulf Coast conducted the email exchange “because it seemed, to [them], that a new generation of surrealist- and absurdist-influenced poetry had emerged in the U.S., written by poets ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-forties and rooted in small presses like Wave Books, Black Ocean, and Octopus Books.” And this is their question: “But what does ‘surrealism’ even mean, in American poetry today?”
Names for things always fascinate me, so I was interested in reading this exchange. And my first questions when starting to read this exchange, were:
1. Is there a movement that could be termed a contemporary American surrealism, and if so, who are its practitioners?
2. Who gets called surreal (in reviews, essays, and on the backs of their books)? And for what reason, and to what outcome?
First, and helpfully, we have four contenders here from Gulf Coast: Hannah Gamble, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder. There are a lot of essays out there on movements and such, and they usually seem to be a little example-light. So, starting with these three presses and four writers, it’s not difficult to begin to make a list to get a sense of what they’re talking about:
Authors from the Octopus books catalogue:
C. D. Wright
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Authors from the Black Ocean catalogue:
Aase Berg (translated by Johannes Göransson)
Carrie Olivia Adams
Authors from the Wave Books catalogue:
Michael Earl Craig
Franck Andre Jamme
Brett Fletcher Lauer
Granted, every single author from each press is certainly not going to be an example of American Surrealism, but it’s still a good place to start, as Gulf Coast has done. But after that, things begin to get quite complicated. I’ve heard Dean Young called a Surrealist in Publisher’s Weekly. And, if the above poets are examples, then we also have many others to add to the list. If Dean Young, then probably Dobby Gibson? Who else? Mathias Svalina, perhaps, through his association with Octopus. Who else? Black Ocean also publishes a journal, Handsome, as does Octopus. Those might be good places to go for more names.
Most, if not all of the above poets that I’m familiar with are also called Post-Avant poets, I believe? So should “Post-Avant” be divided up, or should it ever have existed in the first place? Or does it still exist? Is now the time? Or are any of these categories actual categories? Is there some shared enterprise among the above lists of poets?
Here’s Zachary Schomburg from the symposium:
“What the original Surrealists were doing is something I, too, am trying to do, so I feel I am a part of that lineage. I’m certainly influenced more by them (and the Russian Absurdists perhaps) than by any other poetics. However, that label is far too simple. The process through which I write is entirely different from Breton’s (or what Breton may claim), as are my politics, my philosophies, etc.
Besides, the word “surreal” has—in our broader, non-poetry lexicon—come to mean something much simpler: strange, unreal, weird. I’ve read too many poems that are labeled surreal only because they are not obviously confessional or sincere. I’d hate for the word to become a catch-all, one that has no recollection of Breton. In other words, if we’re going to label something surreal now, those poems should probably resemble each other in some tangible way, or they should perhaps resemble the French Surrealists’ poems in some tangible way. There should probably be a new word for it, and a new manifesto, and maybe this conversation can spark something like that.”
I would be interested in seeing someone take a stab at that new word for it. Looking at the above lists of poets I feel there might be some way to say something generally descriptive that might hold. Who wants to start? Poetry Magazine, maybe? That would be a nice special issue idea.