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Isn’t the Pedagogical Always Avant-Garde?

Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical, she said, I mean altruistically bugbearish
                                                                                    —Lyn Hejinian, My Life[1]

I’d like to begin this essay with an experimental “deformance” of a literary text, reversing Lyn Hejinian’s terms in the epigraph above to ask “Isn’t the pedagogical always avant-garde?” By posing this question, I certainly don’t mean to imply that all pedagogy is inherently innovative. I agree with Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr who find that “[c]ontemporary literary pedagogy is chronically behind contemporary literature by about half a century.”[2] What I do want to assert involves a more literal interpretation of the term avant-garde—that pedagogy happens at the front lines, at the vanguard where experimentalism meets its most resistant and, to my mind, most significant audience. Of course, experimental poetry has an important audience in poetry readings, conferences, journals, and publishers where avant-gardists share their work with one another. But, to be sure, these venues are generally frequented by the already-converted. For experimentalism to have its viral, micro-political effects on the culture, I believe there is no more fertile site than the trenches of the classroom.

In spring 2012, I tested this claim in a course I created on Experimental Poetry and Poetics, in which my aim was to practice an “altruistically bugbearish” pedagogy, to use Hejinian’s terms—one that benevolently introduced students to an object of dread, annoyance, a thorn in the flesh. The classroom would become a space in which the bugbearish virus of experimentalism could infect students’ thinking, producing skeptical creative readers, both within the discipline of English and perhaps even in their lives outside the classroom. To accomplish these goals, however, I needed to do more than just “cover” the avant-garde material using my traditional classroom toolbox. Experimental poetry breaks down hierarchies, subverts author-ity, and empowers readers, inviting them to collaborate in the making of meaning. To deliver a definitive lecture on the meaning and purpose of Ron Silliman’s Ketjak would no doubt have the poet spinning in his office chair somewhere. My pedagogical experiments in the classroom needed to be modeled on the experiments of innovative poetries themselves. For each of the experimental modes we studied, then, I worked to uncover and implement the forms of teaching that each avant-garde poetics engendered.

On the thirteenth day of the course, for example, the students arrived with their toys. There were Dinos and Elmos, Batmen and He-men, Gokus and Homies. We had read excerpts from Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s experimental collaboration Playing Bodies, in which Perelman writes poetic responses to Shaw’s drawings of two toys, a human and a dinosaur figure, locked in some sort of possibly violent, possibly erotic struggle.[3] We began the class in a more traditional pedagogical mode by examining our own experiences with toys and games and the collaborative dynamics of play. This context established, we dove into Perelman and Shaw’s text, which is both a meditation on play and an enactment of it, as the artists’ texts on facing pages also seem to interact in their own sometimes violent, sometimes erotic wrestling match. Then it was time for things to get more avant-garde with our own playful collaboration. Students joined a partner and experimented with different configurations of the toys they brought in until they found the most interesting tableau. In the next step, they moved to a different group’s toy sculpture and collaborated on some Perelman-esque poetic lines in response to the image, which they placed next to the toys. We concluded the activity by wandering our gallery of “Playing Bodies” and discussing insights into play that the configurations raised. The sculptures and poems the students created helpfully maintained the ambiguity of the original text. In one tableau, Spyro the dragon was trapped (or was he taking refuge?) inside a novelty Dodger’s helmet. And my personal favorite: a Batman action figure holding onto the long extended legs of a wind-up frog launching into the air was accompanied by this poetic meditation on collaboration: “Live and let live / I can fly / Hold you back / lift you up.” 

Experimental poetry often functions more as an event to be experienced than an object to be studied. Experiment and experience both come from the same Latin root, experiri, which means to try, to test, to attempt, to find out, to experience. The active nature of this verb undercuts the passiveness of pedagogy, which implies the child (paedo) is guided or shaped/modeled (agogic) by the teacher. How to shape a lesson into an active experience or event that is also pedagogical? As my Playing Bodies event reveals, performance was the key. 

To be sure, all teaching involves performance. My colleagues and I joke about doing our “dancing bear” routines to keep students engaged and awake during our at times brutally long one-hundred-minute class blocks. But this pedagogical model, despite its energy, still creates the active-author, passive-audience dynamic that my topic rejected. Teaching experimental poetics meant having the students join the circus too. Consequently, I worked to make the classroom a stage for performative events not only to engage students, but also to empower them by decentering the authority of the teacher and the author. 

Early on, for example, we explored the roots of experimentalism in the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, including Fluxus. Merely showing them Fluxus images and asking for interpretations would likely make students feel what Lynn Keller calls the “shadow authority” of indeterminate texts.[4] “There must be a ‘correct interpretation’ of this bizarre text that I’m just not smart enough to get.” A performative mode, I hoped, might subvert this shadow authority. I told students about Gyorgy Ligeti’s Fluxus composition “Symphonic Poem,” which consists of detailed instructions on the windings for one hundred metronomes. Inspired by this piece, we were going to perform a “Cellphonic Poem.” Half the room set their phone alarm to 2:43 pm, the other half to 2:44 pm, and we continued on with our regular classroom activities. When electronic burblings, rock music, and bird sounds interrupted class with a two-minute wave of sound, all of us, students and teacher, were experiencing the performance for the first time. 

Though I had given the instructions, the event clearly had no essential “intent” or meaning behind it that students were meant to guess or uncover. Consequently, I think, they dove into discussing it with a great deal of creativity and enthusiasm, and my voice was just another one among them. They noted how many people apparently woke up to simulated “natural” sounds, and a student brought up Baudrillard and the hyperreal. Others were surprised that all the phones didn’t go off at precisely the same time. Weren’t they all synched to the “real” time via satellite? From philosophical discussions of the arbitrary nature of time we moved on to the affective experience of cellphone interruptions in class, and how our event was launched by that initial burst of annoyance/fear but was followed by a new kind of listening. Someone noted that the individual alarms all came in waves—no continuous ringing of the mechanical windup clock—which made our cellphonic poem into a fluctuating sonic landscape, with sounds swelling and fading and even seeming to call and respond to one another. This early in-class performance became a touchstone during the quarter when the specter of an experimental text’s “shadow authority” appeared, reminding students that the experimental artist offers a constraint or a score, but it is up to us the audience to perform it, experience it, make something of it.

The idea of performance also got me thinking about using the space of the classroom to physically stage the kinds of reading that experimental poetry encourages. Though an in-class discussion of a text is technically, of course, an exercise in “collective reading,” the traditional classroom configuration of students seated in rows facing a teacher standing at the front spatially undermines this value.[5] I took my inspiration from Lynn Keller’s excellent essay on “the centrifugal classroom,” where she explains that new experimental poetries require a different model of reading and classroom dynamics. While lyric poetry invites a “centripetal” motion, plunging students into the depths of their/the poet’s inner worlds, experimental poetry is centrifugal, moving outward into the world through “a dispersion of consciousness and of significance.”[6] What if I staged the classroom so that this centrifugal motion and dispersion of consciousness happened physically as well as intellectually in our reading of the text? 

Our discussion of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life provided a perfect opportunity to perform a centrifugal classroom discussion. In particular, my objectives for the day were for students to trace the shifting meanings of her repeated taglines within the book and to experience and experiment with the generative rather than directive nature of her open text in a collaborative way. To facilitate the centrifugal motion, I taped nine posters around the perimeter of the classroom that contained a repetition of the tagline “A name trimmed with colored ribbons” along with the different sentences surrounding it. I instructed students to wander around the room and write onto the poster their particular take on the meaning of the tagline in each new context. As Keller writes, the collective reading process that experimental poetry enables tends to build through a kind of “yes, and” or “yet at the same time” mode rather than the correction and contradiction of class discussions of traditional poetry (32). So I encouraged students to try out this additive model in their responses, interacting not only with Hejinian’s text but also with their peers’ notes, trying to add something new to the conversation. (And, of course, I joined in the collaborative effort.) The activity turned out to be one of the most productive uses of “group work” I have observed. Certainly the novelty of wandering around the classroom and writing on the walls was part of it, but there was no circus atmosphere. In fact, it felt more like an interactive museum gallery. Students walked quietly from poster to poster, engaging with the voices there with much more seriousness than I anticipated. The resulting posters of notes were an excellent visual representation of the productive centrifugal splatter of a dispersed interpretive consciousness—piles of sentences, questions, circled words and arrows responding, extending, and exploding into multiple interpretations. 

The skeptical in my audience may be thinking this theatrical business is all well and good for entertaining today’s jaded students and maybe expanding their critical thinking skills, but what about the important stuff—what about their essays. To them I say that these in-class performances seemed to correlate to a stronger performance in more traditional forms of writing and criticism. At the end of our study ofMy Life, students wrote a thesis-driven analytical essay in which they traced a tagline of their choosing in the book, making a claim about the ideas/themes/issues that seem to emerge around it.[7] I know two samples does not a sufficient empirical study make, but, for the record, I had given the same assignment in a different upper-division course a couple of years earlier, and the essays from this class where we performed so much experimental reading were, to my impression, significantly richer in their interpretation of Hejinian’s text. Continually staging and performing the generative multiplicity of experimental texts ended the habitual game of “guess the author’s intent” by author-izing the students into a creative, performative analysis of their own. 


  1. ^ Lyn Hejinian, My Life and My Life in the Nineties (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2013), 80.
  2. ^ Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), xi. I would like to thank the editors, Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr, and the writers collected in this volume; their ideas inspired much of the experimentation in the class I describe here.
  3. ^ Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw, Playing Bodies (New York: Granary Books, 2004).
  4. ^ Lynn Keller, “FFFFFalling with Poetry: The Centrifugal Classroom,” in Retallack and Spahr, eds., Poetry and Pedagogy,: The Challenge of the Contemporary, 33.
  5. ^ During our discussion of conceptual poetry, one student suggested a conceptual classroom spatial reversal in which the teacher sat in the little desks while all the students stood at the front and fired questions at her about the readings. Though we never got a chance to try it, I’m intrigued by the idea, particularly if students have to work as hard to generate their discussion questions as the teacher does. And the person(s) in the “hot seat” could rotate after the teacher answered the initial barrage. 
  6. ^ Lynn Keller, “FFFFFalling with Poetry: The Centrifugal Classroom,” 30, 31.
  7. ^ As Keller writes, “innovative poems may be ‘around’ or ‘out from’ identifiable subjects, while not ‘about’ them” (34). I tried throughout the course to use more centrifugal prepositions to describe the work of experimental poems and our interpretation of them, rather than the directive and limiting language of what the poem is “about.”