Is epic about length? collectivity? tradition? narrative structure? Find out in Invitation to Form: Epic Mix edited by Julianne Neely, a Buffalo-based poet and PhD candidate in poetics at the University at Buffalo. Read on for her editor's note introducing Invitation to Form and reimagining what makes poetry and visual art epic. And mark your calendars: On Sunday, August 6, we're organizing our first event in Buffalo in 3.5 years (including a hybrid option for guests to join virtually) with a launch party for Julianne's Mix, featuring readings by six of its contributors and intermittent writing activities for guests.
Epic is cool. Epic is dynamic. Epic is ecstatic. Epic is heroic. Epic is grandiose. Epic is culture-shaping. Epic is world-creating. Epic is an impulse. Epic is a space of risk.
The epic is indicative of both tradition and experiment. In a traditional sense, the epic exceeds collective limits of perception, creating new worlds on the page that shape the existing world off of it. As a site of formal experimentation, epics first and foremost attempt to redefine or challenge the boundaries of a poem or poetic experience.
The poems and visual art I have selected for this Mix share in common the presence of a space of epic proportions—whether in length, duration, momentum, or perception—to invent poetic linkages between language and its relationship to history and power. For me, these linkages operate on two key levels: through a poetics born out of a resistance to the intensifying reification of experience under a capitalist regime of value; and through a poetic reconstruction of the channels and vectors of social power. Rather than adhering to some clearly delineated form, the epic is amenable to differing aesthetic and political projects. It is a grab bag of forms, an open one that can handle the vastness of collective experience.
The work in this Mix grapples with containment by bearing out something of a long-term interface. In Marisa Tornello’s “visual scores,” for instance, the reader encounters a fractured counter-narrative of a “performance” that travels between visual, videographic, and textual media. The fractured state of the “performance notes” presents the stammering voice of new social energy: “time does not exist,” they write. And it doesn’t—anywhere in this Mix. The work, much like the formal radicalisms it engages with, imagines a large-scale reorganization of culture, society, and economy outside all the usual expectations of history and time.
Sometimes the reorganization of time can be literal. In the excerpts from leech-book by Ava September Hofmann, the poet provides outlines to mark scrappy edges of the pages of the poems, suggesting the epic as a form belonging to the past. Other times, when the epic engages in cultural critique, it becomes another kind of historical document. In “Poem for the Start of a New Decade,” Kayleb Rae Candrilli tracks the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through the past, present, and future of a decade, or as they write, “the speed of a virus—the sheer sprint of it.” These political and sociocultural concerns are not merely incidental to these poems; rather, the very form of the epic arises to handle them. New social forms lead to new poetic forms. New forms—period—shape culture. Create it.
Many epics reach toward something like a temporal horizon, or a world of possible outcomes and effects, which the poems themselves can make manifest. In the third section of Rebecca Teich’s poem “Friends & Lovers,” the reader encounters a long list of “say” imperatives, ending with an invitation: “say invitation to form.” And what happens when we say it?
I love that epic implies an impulse toward length in poetry—toward creating a sustained experience without the burden of narrative. It forces the reader to reconsider one’s understanding of language and episteme: how we know what we know, and how we communicate that knowledge to one another. But epic doesn’t merely mean long; instead, I see the epic as a work broadly willing to challenge the reader’s capacity to endure something of magnitude.
There is something sublime about the endless layers of sediment, textuality, and longing that we experience in the epic, like its extensity is a challenge to our limited points of view. To write an epic then is to be epic, to live beyond the limits of the self, to engage the complex relations between world and composition.
What happens when we say it?
Reader, dude—that was so epic.
Julianne Neely received her MFA degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received the Truman Capote Fellowship, the 2017 John Logan Poetry Prize, and a Schupes Fellowship for Poetry. She is currently a Poetics PhD student and an English Department Fellow at the University at Buffalo. Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic, VIDA, The Poetry Project, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and more. She has three chapbooks out with Slope Editions, garden-door Press, and Foundlings Press.
Read more by Julianne:
Season 3: "A WOMAN WALKS INTO A BAR" (named "Best of 2019" by Entropy)
Season 4: "King Lear (Redacted and Reconstructed"
Peach x Rise: "AFTER THE GENDERED LYRIC"