Sunday, June 20, 2010

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:

Matvei Yankelevich
Heather Christle
Eric Baus
Julie Doxsee
Emily Pettit
Patrick Culliton
C. D. Wright
Shane McCrae
Matthew Rohrer
Ana Bozicevic-Bowling
Lily Brown
Jonah Winter
Jen Tynes
Erika Howsare
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Eugene Ostashevsky
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Genya Turovskaya
Samuel Amadon

Authors from the Black Ocean catalogue:

Julie Doxsee
Joe Hall
Zachary Schomburg
Aase Berg (translated by Johannes Göransson)
Joshua Harmon
Rauan Klassnik
Paula Cisewski
Carrie Olivia Adams
Scott Creney

Authors from the Wave Books catalogue:

Eric Baus
Joshua Beckman
Charles Borkhuis
Laynie Browne
Garrett Caples
Gillian Conoley
Michael Earl Craig
Timothy Donnelly
John Godfrey
Arielle Greenberg
Christian Hawkey
Brian Henry
Franck Andre Jamme
Tyehimba Jess
Aimee Kelley
Caroline Knox
Noelle Kocot
Dorothea Lasky
Brett Fletcher Lauer
Katy Lederer
Anthony McCann
Richard Meier
Chelsey Minnis
Eileen Myles
Sawako Nakayasu
Maggie Nelson
Philip Nikolayev
Geoffrey Nutter
Peter Richards
Matthew Rohrer
Mary Ruefle
Steve Shavel
S.A. Stepanek
James Tate
Diane Wald
Joe Wenderoth
Dara Wier
Jon Woodward
Andrew Zawacki
Rachel Zucker

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.


At 6/20/2010 4:17 PM, Blogger Colin Sheldon said...

"Clues," "take a stab"--are you sure this isn't just another episode of murder mystery theater?

Arielle Greenberg in the conservatory with a typewriter!

At 6/21/2010 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 1970s (and its coterie of little magazines) were jammed with discussions/essays/examples of "new surrealism"--"American surrealism"-- "neo deep imagism". Then it was Tate/Knott/Simic/Codrescu/Lux(before he excommunicated himself)among many, many others. I think the writers in the Gulf Coast interview are probably more influenced by James Tate than Andre Breton. Tate plus Koch (that neo-dadaist!) via Young. Bly explores the issue in his seminal LEAPING POETRY. See, JG--your theory on the music of the 70s-80s influence on today's musicians works for verse, too. --Dave Brooks

At 6/21/2010 4:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think there is a return to a strand of the 70s weaving through this, especially the Tate/ Edson corner (less the James Wright/ Mark Strand corner).

And, Eli, CLUE was a very popular game in the 70s around my house... so it continues.

At 6/21/2010 4:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Which reminds me, I just heard the debut album from Beach Fossils. They play as if the last 40 years of music never happened. It's fascinating.

At 6/22/2010 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to go off topic & steer this more into music, but... I'm curious--John, what is your theory on the music of the 70s-80s & its influence on today's musicians? Is it on this blog somewhere?


At 6/22/2010 11:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It was little more than an aside about a week or so ago. There's no real theory to go along with it, except to note just how much a lot of bands are reaching back (and some literally with cover songs) these days, and just how seamlessly they fit in. Usually with influence there's something dramatic added to it (how R.E.M. really doesn't sound like the Byrds, but you can hear the jangly influence on the early albums). Now it seems like a lot of bands (and just this week I heard the new albums from Beach Fossils, Beach House, and Laura Veirs) are really rather than visiting the past, they're channeling it.

That makes sense to me, as there hasn't been a major shift in music for at least a decade . . . inspiration has to come from somewhere. Why not 1978? It's amazing how contemporary The Modern Lovers sounds right now, for instance.

That's just off the top of my head, but it's fascinating. And a lot of the music is excellent, so I'm not having one of those "things were so much better then" thoughts.

At 6/22/2010 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Looking at the above lists of poets I feel there might be some way to say something generally descriptive that might hold."

YEAH I'll take a "stab" at it:

Credentialist Horse Shit

At 7/14/2010 7:27 AM, Blogger Brooks Lampe said...

John, thank you for posting this very interesting article and for articulating/framing the questions. Hopefully, I'm writing my dissertation on this topic and I've been looking for this very thing--young poets who openly acknowledge their surrealist influences.

As far as a term, one of the poets listed here, Charles Borkuis, offers "parasurrealism" in his wonderful essay, “Writing from Inside Language: Late Surrealism and Textual Poetry in France and the United States.”

At 7/14/2010 11:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Sounds like an interesting project. I'd love to hear what you come up with.

At 12/11/2013 2:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and where is the Surrealism again?


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