Somatics and Experimental Prose: an unfinished essay

First published by Aufgabe #13 (Litmus Press)

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For Bhanu Kapil




Prose is about time ... Prose slows down the excitement, it redistributes the tension of certain words and certain emotion ... [it] redistributes the tension at levels we can endure.

--Nicole Brossard


I will begin with prose: why prose, especially experimental prose, the place of the sentence, the paragraph, the “novel”; in effect, why do some of us write prose instead of poetry, or music, or architectural blueprints? In a world of limitless possibility, only tempered by the temporal and spatial reality we inhabit, one that is constantly in flux, both emerging into and receding from view, our view, what does the sentence do or enact differently than other types of representation? Nicole Brossard speculates, in the quotation above, the temporal as prose’s main valuation: she posits an inherent grammatical and syntactical structure of the sentence that slows down, that redistributes, that lessens tension. The elastic ability of the sentence to contain a time-stamp we can endure seems vital for Brossard in a way that creates another type of tension—this time internal— with regards to genre.

What is genre but a category to de ne the limits of how we approach and react to the in nite ways language can shape, delineate, utilize, aestheticize, etc.? Brossard comments on this cognitive splitting that imagines these limits not as chasms but as no-(hu)man’s-lands, the grassy areas between the road and the fenced-in carnival: the potential space of running amok. In the same interview, Brossard wonder[s] how far the poetic can go before it becomes prosaic and what suddenly gives the prosaic a poetic dimension.2 A sentence suddenly becomes poetic when it wanders far a eld. The suddenness seems to creep up: an abrupt nuance, an embedded shift in the sentence one assumes is just a sentence before pop!, it’s poetic. Maybe this isn’t a Brossardian ease of tension but a reinvigoration—a means to bring tension to its extreme—where the sentence buckles and turns away: a type of revenge.

I’m interested in this space, in this pop: or rather, in the sentence before the pop. Most readers assume sentences are easier to read than fractured lines of poetry and approach them with a trust inherent in preconceived notions of understandability: the sentence couches the reader’s comforts. Thus, when the sentence de es expectations it performs something else, an unknown feeling that creeps up on the reader and enunciates new types of anticipations: the poetic(s) of prose.

There is no law defining reaction: the sentence is, and one may follow it or stop in one’s tracks. This cessation is choice: the human ability to attempt to foreclose a space before it influences, or in the very act of intended influence, in relation to what may be unendurable.

And yet, still, what is this sentential poetics, this question of traction, of method, of sway?

It excesses form and aligns more closely with syntax, cadence, and tone.


...complexity and seismography...

-- Nicole Brossard



In the eld of our thoughts, in thinking of existence (being-existing) in time and place, we have the most absolute of mirrors: the sentence.

-- Renee Gladman


I’m fascinated by the act of reading, of the decisions that go into choosing to sit at a cafe or stand on a train and picking this text or that article to read. Jennifer Miller, a medieval scholar at UC Berkeley, told me in 2004 that we read texts in anticipation: how the text indulges or manipulates that anticipatory desire is just as important of a methodological tool as form or content. Readers want something out of the act of reading, and this desire is economic as much as affective or intellectual.

Does the sentence, then, act as a more democratic or catholic site of inclusion, where the reader can let their guard down, open the page, and read the coziness of a beautiful, well-thought-out metaphor? Is the sentence assumed as an escapist ruse for distraction, entertainment, disassociation from the space around the reader? If the reader feels soothed by the linearity of the sentence, what happens when that calm is disrupted, literally, by a breach? A syntactical re-orientation? A quick curve in an unforeseen direction?

Words, when spilling onto more words, enacts a different type of linearity, one that fractures and accumulates, that slips in route to dead ends and refuses to bypass dark alleyways.

It is possible that prose has a privileged position in relation to disruption: in seducing the reader to assume regularity, the ambush could be quite jarring as well as sublime. I am reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense: the protagonist Aleksandr Luzhin, whose mental breakdown turns his life into an insidious chess match he cannot win, is stunned to nd that, when opening the door to his hotel room one day, it leads somewhere else: a backyard, a kitchen, someone else’s room. Is the character or the sentence losing its mind? Is the reader equally implicated?

Although Nabokov reveals an aporia that emerges in the durational space of the sentence, his writing practice does not go far enough: it remains, in effect, fiction.


... fiction is too burdened by a system of expectations (e.g., entrenched characters, well-developed storylines, conflicts and resolutions) to allow for the wandering and sometimes stuttering ‘I’ that I associate with discovery.

-- Renee Gladman


3. might our work as artists, writers, or teachers probe the submerged relations between our bodies and the social forces that channel their potential?

-- Rob Halpern


New Narrative and Canadian experimental prose has done rigorous research into the political rami cations of non-normative sentence structure and subversive prose over the last thirty years. Much of this writing refracts through individual experience, distrust in linear and historical ideologies, and a resistance to oppressive State and Media apparatuses, ones that erase local identities for political and economic gain.

Experimental prose, then, is a protest against the written historicity of given scripts, preconceived concepts, the world as inherited and necessary to endure. What does prose do that opens the space of possibility, that reminds the reader of limitless potential, that performs as well as transmits anti-colonial affective language: that which resists as it enacts?

It lies in the fractured sentence; the prosodic accumulation; the non-normative structure of experimental syntax. As Bhanu Kapil writes:

Syntax has the capacity to be subversive, to be very beautiful, to register an anti-colonial position: in this respect. I think of the semi-colon: how it faces backwards and is hooked, the very thing a content [shredded plastic] might be caught on. A content, that is, that might never appear in the document of place. Perhaps the poet’s novel is a form that, in this sense, might be taken up [is] by writers of color, queer writers, writers who are thinking about the body in these other ways.
-- Bhanu Kapil

And then: to move from this space, to open up the topography of politics, underlying all types of written and spoken discourse.


Can a poem arouse a form of embodied social sense whereby a body’s relation to its occluded intimacies becomes perceptible?

-- Rob Halpern



For a life to count as a good life, then it must return the debt of its life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. A queer life might be one that fails to make such gestures of return.

-- Sara Ahmed


My writing practice centers around building, quite literally, a queer space, one that is not separated from the world as it is but is enmeshed in it, transposed upon it, always occurring simultaneously with it. In experimental prose, queer space emerges not as necessarily strange or Other but rather insistent and pervasive: subtly present. The pull of desire, the unintelligible need for touch as incessant and demanding, shapes the sentences, drawing forward the topoi of cruising—the need for contact.

Desire affects the spaces we inhabit: this is pivotal, vital, unavoidable. In a way, we exteriorize our inner systems, following streets to make certain synapses in our brains re; like illuminated lines reflected off rough concrete.

To write the bend. To enact the bend. Does the bend transmit? Do we turn, in the writing, when reading this text? In following a line of sight it seems natural we must contort our bodies likewise.

What does it mean to queer? Texts may be queer, or evoke a queer space, but in the reading, in their reception, something other may occur: total failure of a transmitted turning.

I see this as a Gladman-like reach—the sentence’s desire for touch. Again, we might look to syntax: to map breathing, the waiting body, the oscillation of a moving chest, leaning against a tree, all senses open to possible encounter.


Deviation leaves its own marks on the ground, which can even help generate alternative lines, which cross the ground in unexpected ways. Such lines are indeed traces of desire; where people have taken different routes to get to this point...

-- Sara Ahmed



Speech has a function that is not only representative but also destructive. It causes to vanish, it renders the object absent, it annihilates it.

-- Maurice Blanchot


The space of non-reproductive desire maps along city streets and urban parks. Similarly, my texts fall into repetitions of a walk from cement to dirt: the space of potential touch, but also, the space of writing.

It’s important not to forget that writing enacts that which it is not—actual living-in-the-world. The text must be aware of this contradiction, comment upon this distance. Longing. The long-to-touch of the sentence itself, straining to make a connection. So that, the text, in enacting the cruise, will continue to repeat via different attempts12 until some type of contact occurs.

The ellipsis of elision: ...

The end of the book.

The sex is elided. Once contact occurs, there is no more reason to write, and therefore no more reason to read. It is completion and consummation of the text; and yet, the ellipsis may initiate the first page—as a post-coital remembrance—as a gesturing back.

This, of course, is the intention: what occurs in the writing may be completely different. I know I sometimes make intellectual errors; ones you may notice cropping up along the sentential path. Some texts veer off course in my desire to experiment with grounding. I wanted to write a grounded text that does not mention the ground, and thus, a writing arises that tends towards an uneasy type of abstraction. Here, the writing escapes intention, but also intuition.

And thus, a return to my original artistic aims: of clay, of language as a plastic art, through failure.


He devotes all his energy to not writing, so that, writing, he should write out of failure, in failure’s intensity.

-- Maurice Blanchot

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Work of Fire. Trans. C. Mandell, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Print.

—. The Writing of The Disaster. 2nd ed. Trans. A. Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print.

Brossard, Nicole. “Delirious Coherence.” Interview by Susan Holbrook. TCR The Capilano Review: Narrative Winter 2013. Print.

Gladman, Renee. “The Person in the World.” Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Ed. Mary Burger, et al. Vancouver: Coach House Books, 2004. Print.

Halpern, Rob. “Rob Halpern: on ‘Somatics.’” Interview by Thom Donovan. Harriet Blog. The Poetry Foundation, 26 April 2011. Web. 5 May 2013.

Kapil, Bhanu. “A Conversation with Bhanu Kapil: The Poet’s Novel.” Interview by Laynie Browne. Jacket2 Blog. Kelly Writers House. 26 April 2013. Web. 5 May 2013.



JH Phrydas