I mistrust all labels (who doesn’t?) and despise custodial nouns like “formalist” or “experimentalist.” I expect you feel the same way— that nouning the world is an unhealthy, essentially lazy practice. Yet we all do it, and we do it for the same reason that we map territories— to help us immobilize the chaos and navigate it. But the practice creates verbal/mental berms against reality, since reality is all flux: growth, decay, death, rebirth etc. Any artist should want to resist being nouned into nullity that way— being pinned down or penned in (pun unintentional) by abstract descriptions. Only verbs, especially present participles, can really capture what artists are trying to do— and then only for a moment. So when labellers libel Christian Bök as a mere “avant-gardist” or “Oulipian,” or describe Amanda Jernigan as a “formalist” or “neo-formalist,” I get frustrated and impatient.
As for my actual writing, I’ll use techniques that could be described as “formalist” if a particular poem seems to demand them; or I’ll write a poem that will look, on the page, almost Black Mountainish if that’s what the evolving poem seems to require. To me, such flexibility of approach is essentially just what it means to be a poet— you pledge allegiance to poetry, to language, and to the work of trying to re-enact poetic impulses in the most effective way possible, rather than flashing your membership card in the “experimental” or “lyrical” school. Or any number of other schools.
- Steven Heighton, in conversation with Jenny Haysom over at ARC Poetry Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.