Dana Teen Lomax: Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children

Review by Ella Longpre


Discovering the avant-garde is too often a cerebral and eventually bland experience, a moment that starts with a sense of relief—or what is supposed to feel like liberation—from previous movements, that winds through decades of theoretical parameters and divisions, until the avant-garde begins to resemble the artistic schools and practices it sought to dismantle—an experience that inevitably ends with the tedious question, “What is or isn’t avant-garde, anyway?” Didn’t avant-garde die out with Duchamp—wasn’t it killed when Clement Greenberg first arranged archetypes of the avant-garde into essay form? To declare one’s self post-avant-garde is an attempt to divorce oneself from seemingly arbitrary rigidity, a declaration that begins with positioning avant-garde and experimental as synonymous.

But, as much as the avant-garde tradition resists a tidy definition, there are characteristic markers, we know, that set it at least adjacent to, if not separate it from, the experimental. These markers, responsible for its autonomy and success, are supposed to make avant-garde works impossible to market or sell (though we know they had the opposite effect). These are the characteristics embraced by the contributors to Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children, experimental writers who express subtle understandings of the avant-garde, if not as a school or tradition, then as a successful process and practice. Kindergarde introduces the avant-garde practice to children before it becomes tedious, and the intended readers of this book, with their free and liberating play, are poised to absorb it.

Edited by Dana Teen Lomax, author of Disclosure (Black Radish, 2011), Kindergarde solicits experimental writers, such as Lyn Hejinian, CA Conrad, Vanessa Place, Tan Lin, and Charles Bernstein, to contribute works composed especially for children. Kindergarde acts as an invitation to young minds to investigate and create, while also offering a challenge, confronting the intellect of young readers, meeting their intelligence while speaking directly to their sense of play. Kindergarde appears to be a workbook for children, complete with blank pages in the back, but for another reader (members of the experimental and Alt Lit communities who typically read books published by Black Radish and other small presses), it also works as an anthology of Language poetics, New Narrative, cut-ups, and other new avant-garde forms.

The writers of Kindergarde are well-equipped to meet children on familiar literary territory, offering off-beat nursery rhymes, mesostic abecedarians (this one from Evie Shockley), and a story told as a list of words in alphabetical order (Kenneth Goldsmith). Though many of the forms in Kindergarde are familiar to the classroom, each builds on markers characteristic of the avant-garde. Juliana Spahr, in her contribution, “Everybody’s Performance Art: Ten Possible Reenactments,” expands the avant-garde performance canon, encouraging children to reenact performances by Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, and Bruce Nauman. Spahr has retro-composed scripts for well-known performances, an act reminiscent of Abramović’s own restaging of the performance art canon at the Guggenheim in 2005. But unlike Abramović’s attempt to legitimize performance, the delight of Spahr’s piece is that, by reversing iconic performances into sets of instructions (with child-friendly twists), Spahr ends up providing instructions for games children already play, leveling (with levity?) any gravity inherent to the history of performance. There’s the aggressive game in which everyone shoots at each other, a game children seem to learn intuitively, after Burden’s “Shoot.” (“Foam darts” are explicitly required, not the bullets that actually punctured Burden’s arm in 1971.) Then there’s the vulnerability required of a child who offers herself to her playmates in Spahr’s tearing piece (after Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” though in this one, paper armor is gradually torn off, not clothing). And there’s the familiar sensory abandon written into Nauman’s Body Pressure; Spahr’s version comes playfully close to Nauman’s original pink set of instructions, in which children press their bodies against a wall. As closely as Spahr’s versions follow the originals, though, this particular framing of performance blanches it of its political motivations. In the end, it’s unclear here whether Spahr’s games are inspired by performance, or performance is generally informed by play.

Similarly, Douglas Kearney inhabits the avant-garde’s playful realm with his set of games, “Word: Play.” Kearney’s games, with typographical ingenuity, issue some impossible instructions (“play the of part this in play to parts some are those”), but also encourage readers to write on the instructions and in the pages of the book. Sawako Nakayasu writes about someone who is “saved from dying” while weaving a blanket of dead ants. CA Conrad’s somatic exercise, dedicated to Eileen Myles, another contributor, encourages children to talk to trees.

Right along with the propensity for play, the contributors to Kindergarde draw from the avant-garde tradition (if such a phrase is possible) of appropriation in their readings and activities for children. Brent Cunningham has written a prequel to Willie Wonka, and Christian Bök’s tribute to “Nietzsche, at the death of Superman,” is told entirely in comic book sound effects taken from the Superman comics. Bruce Covey contributed a single page of circles: cut-outs of published text, authorship unattributed.

The avant practice most apparent in Kindergarde may be the reversal of “virtuosity.” Lyn Hejinian’s parable, “A Tale in which a Prince Falls from a Nest,” uses deceptively accessible images to tell a tale on a Borgesian plane of delightful obscurity. Hejinian’s tale emphasizes that the ingenuity of (whatever we call) avant-garde lies outside virtuosity and is nearer to a characterizing wit that manipulates the simple. As Hejinian writes in The Fatalist, “I’m going to color outside the lines of reggae”—child play and avant works are tied in the sense that they both emphasize innovation and creativity over mastery. Many of the pieces in Kindergarde are characteristic to the contributor, which emphasizes this tie (this collection could have been appropriated from an anthology). Charles Bernstein demonstrates Language Poetics’ close affinity to the nursery rhyme in “Emma’s Nursery Rhymes.” Juan Felipe Herrera uses a combination of onomatopoeia and geographic locations, a combination that “sounds like uh, Hip Hop!” to collapse one city onto another. Bhanu Kapil tells a story of a dream and a jungle, two-thirds of which is in the footnotes; Anne Waldman uses anaphora and rhyme in an encyclopedia poem, setting man against manatee; Wanda Coleman’s “COFFEE,” a narrative told in a child’s single breath about coffee, may or may not affect your skin color, making “you blacker / and blacker;” Akilah Oliver shifts a city; Tan Lin writes a cosmic meditation in the form of a text message.

Robin Blaser ends the collection with two poems and the lines, “your words / seek the marvelous / and speak day and night.” Blaser’s conclusion encourages authorship, which seems to be Kindergarde’s primary enterprise. There are blank pages included in the back matter for readers’ contributions—and Lomax mentions in the editor’s note that these pages were included thanks to her young daughter’s suggestion, re-emphasizing two-fold child authorship as a reality. Kindergarde speaks in dialogue to the common response to avant-garde art: “My child could paint that.” Well, yes. And no. But the argument over whether children can create avant-garde works, again, shouldn’t center on mastery of aesthetic and technique. Kindergarde operates as a kind of guide for children, a blueprint of creativity written in the chalk of the avant-garde, where the inhibiting constraint of technique is second to innovation and experiment.