Forum: Minimalism vs. Maximalism

Marianne Villanueva

Many times, I don’t know what I’m interested in writing until I actually sit at the computer and begin writing. Writing for me is very much a process of discovery—even when I’m writing memoir or non-fiction. Sometimes I will get a ripple, a flash of emotion, and I’ll be in the kitchen and have to run to the computer. Mostly, I try to arrange my life—when I’m not teaching—so that I’m not very far from my computer.

What does all this have to do with minimalism/maximalism? Well, the biggest tool in my writer’s arsenal is the element of surprise. Whether I surprise myself, or surprise others. I don’t like to have a pre-arranged plan, I don’t even believe in having a firm structure. My writing is best when it’s loose and unstructured. Of course, the flip side to this is that I can’t sustain a longer piece. I don’t have the stamina, I don’t have the energy, and most of all I can’t sustain the interest—and if I can’t sustain the interest for myself, how can I expect any reader to be interested in what I have to say?

So I like to keep things short.

Occasionally, I’ll have an extra-long period of amazement and turn out a 20-25 page story. I’ve had these moments perhaps once a year. I treasure them precisely because of their rarity. Two of my stories that are longer have appeared in my new collection, Mayor of the Roses. The stories are “Infected”, set in New York City; and “Selena”, set in our very own Silicon Valley.

I also this year finished another long story, 22 pages, also set in Silicon Valley. I’m trying to write a novel but I’m doing it in short bursts, so that the structure that is emerging is more of a mosaic…

I wonder if this style of writing will change as I get older. So far, nothing beats the thrill of sitting at the computer and having the words come out in a rush. It’s such an adrenaline high, I almost can’t live without it. That’s why I always keep myself busy—to lessen the time I have for writing, which paradoxically makes me want to write more, which then increases the intensity of emotion when I actually do have something to say, so that the writing comes out very charged, very short, and very intense. Strange process, I know.


Cedar Sigo

When a poem becomes too long or crowded I begin to see I added its staircase and panels to the hallway (making it longer) out of pure desperation and wanting to sell. I have one of them removed in favor of a two-way mirror. When a poet reads a poem considered long & fat with self love it bores us. It ignores sadness, intensity and horror. If these aspects do not make you physically ill or forgotten I am forced to have the writer put down, horribly uneven parts, mirth, brilliance and luxury, not a single line added that is out of step with the band. When I have embarked on collaborations with other writers I find the cutting of the work is harsh and kept quick. What little is left on the page blinds both of us. It hated being buried even a second.


Alvin Orloff

Minimalism was a marker of good taste among the suburban intelligentsia I grew up around. The acceptable color palate for clothing and houses alike consisted of various shades of beige, gray, and a horrific mixture of the two, greige. The political slogan of the era was “Less is more,” and the literary corollary was that prose should be spare and realistic. Fanciful plot lines, improbable characters, and excessive editorial comment were strictly verboten. I still recall sitting on my parents’ oatmeal colored sofa reading New Yorker stories that all seemed to be about the same lady in Connecticut to whom nothing particularly ever happened, often quite slowly. Oh, what joy I felt on first discovering that not everyone had disencumbered their works of alliteration, rants, fantasy, absurdity, and way too many adjectives. Books could snarl and bite! Books could dance and sing! Books could grab you by the brain and sodomize your thought process! There are doubtless a few writers for whom minimalism doesn’t lead to drabness, but I suspect it’s easier for the mind meld between author and reader that makes literature interesting to happen in less constrained formats. My motto is, “Maximalize, maximalize, maximalize, you have nothing to lose but your good taste.”


Cherry Muhanji

I will never forgive myself for having never read Toni Cade Bambara’s, The Salt Eaters till now (of which I refuse to read the last 20 pages that have lingered for well over 4 months in my, “things not to do list.” Clearly a postmodern text it comes with everything thrown in; takes the reader on journeys to places and spaces that end abruptly—appear to start nowhere in particular; embraces the ancestral, “mud mothers,” begins with madness, struggles with healings, on to friendships, love affairs, rapes, the courtly acceptance of men in the Civil Rights Movement to women struggling to find a clean bathroom to change their tampons. It digresses big time, makes references in the black idiom, and is elaborate in detail. In short, this text demands: get in or get out. It is an intricate weave for some, but for others at the time (1980) an impenetrable soup. Gloria Hull, literary critic, What It Is I Think She Doing Anyhow, writes, “Salt is long, intricately written, trickily structured, full of learning, heavy with wisdom-is, altogether, what critics mean by a ‘large’ book.” She compares it to what Richard Wright’s Native Son in the 40’s, to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in the 50’s, to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the 70’s. “It fixes,” Hull continues, “our present, and challenges the way to the future.” Well, the future is here, and one, I’d argue, that Salt in part never dreamed of.

A close reading demands the reader supply meaning. Does that make it a minimalist text? In that the uninitiated reader will experience breaks and digressions as something other than what they are (i.e. sloppy writing) and elaboration as meaningless meanderings. For them. Perhaps they see this work as a minimal effort lacking in form or substance---making sounds that signify little. Woe! To those who have no political consciousness of the 60’s. And, to those who laud those times, “remember how sweet it was?”, or do you, really?” I argue that Bambara’s targeted audience is black and female. It is full of black aphorisms which brought a great big smile to my lips, and feminist which is another---- dare I say it in these times--- very important “othered” message for me as a black and female and lesbian.

I think of my own writing over time. I began as a poet interpreting my world as scantily as possible… demanding--- as it were ---the same kinds of things I see in Salt. Either you’re in as a reader or out. I published. Now, after years in the academy, I haven’t written much, I second guess everything, and I try to throw everything in including the kitchen sink…And publish little.

I long for Toni Cade Bambara, of whom I met briefly, who is now deceased.

I will, I promise, finish The Salt Eaters. I can’t promise I’ll get all of it, but I thank you for this, angry, happy, funny, sad, outrageous book, and the utter delight you have (notice the present tense) in Blackness American style.


Alvin Lu

The goal is maximum compression with maximum complexity. In a word, economy. It’s a modernist aesthetic, really, but impossible to do in a modern language without distortion. The classical Chinese texts are as serene, and real, as the landscape paintings. Compression, complexity—and clarity. I want a literature that is not so overwhelmed by verbosity, voices, voices, voices, but is the simple sound of thought, an ocean through which the heavens and all life’s details can move without disturbing the surface.


Lisa Jarnot

It had not occurred to me to think about minimalism or maximalism in poetry until I received a call from the editors of Switchback to write about this topic. When I search on the internet for minimalism in writing I find out that Samuel Beckett is considered a minimalist writer and I like Samuel Beckett’s writing very much. Then I think that James Joyce must be a maximalist writer of sorts, though I’m still not sure what the definition of maximalism might be. Then I go on the internet and search for “maximalism in poetry” and I find out that someone named Alan Williamson is a maximalist poet, but when I look at his work I don’t think much of it and I wonder if maximalism is related to obsessiveness since his work seems long and drawn out and somewhat obsessive in returning to certain topics, but not necessarily in an interesting way. Then if that is the definition of maximalism I think that my favorite maximalist writers are James Joyce and Bernadette Mayer and Jack Kerouac who are obsessive but also interesting. Then I think that in a perfect world the legislative branches of the government would be filled with minimalist and maximalist poets instead of democrats and republicans. In this perfect world I would like to be represented by minimalist poet Aram Saroyan and maximalist poet Juliana Spahr.


Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Words have created a sense of place. Life is long. Water sits still on the shelves. To accept that meaning is, could mean an acceptance of the mortality of our words. So we write meaning is stationary and decipherable. It is there and it is waiting. There is the story that is aware of other stories. Words we are yet to reach or words we put aside to arrive here. We may walk through many doors and reach the apple. To define my toe, I have called on the doctor. He says, it's a good toe. It's hearty. Some say I never get to the point. Too many byways. Too much of the supernatural. We are carrying personal and national histories inside us. Where do we hang them while we wait for assimilation?


Joshua Clover

Isn’t this forum just a hammering of nails into the coffin of some decade I can barely remember because of distance and the lithium haze that surround it, some art movement and its quasi-oppositional double that turned out to be retorts to the threat of mechanical reproduction, one autistic and one hysterical, which by answering the wrong question nonetheless managed to ramify into realms of taste and economy and aesthetic pleasure, which is probably how the history of art is written, so we should forgive them for fighting skirmishes in wars that have already been settled by music? As a thought experiment, I am trying to imagine what it would feel like to care about this question. I mean, to have a real stake in it, to feel oppressed by Don Judd or thrilled by Hong Hao or whatever the affect might be. Nope, nothing. We float in a moment of superinformation; the relationship of consciousness to the intractably, thrillingly, unmanageably vast forest of signs that dominate the daily life of every urban and quasi-urban space takes on an irreducible substance. The impulse to have a response to superinformation – to manage it, to display the mechanisms of management, to give a sense of what it feels like to be vagrant within it, to be its reluctant or blithe or exhausted subject – these seem interesting to me. Thrilling, maybe, or oppressive. Minimalism started to think this and proceeded by abstracting symbol management from social space, which is probably unforgivable and certainly insufficient. One more try if you want to be contemporaries.


Jennifer Blowdryer

I am maximum size and live on minimum income. Maybe if I wasn’t so fucking poor I wouldn’t’ve gotten in the box of spaghetti boiled and laden with store brand butter, salt, and pepper type of habit. If you call it pasta it sounds a little more wealthy, actually.

I like maximum guys, big guys, as well as being big but sometimes they want me to dominate them. “Sit on my face!” a young man requested just the other day. Well, if there’s one thing you don’t want to do when you’re 235 pounds, it’s sit on somebody’s face. It’s not too erotic, the opposite of letting go, tensing my bulky body to avoid pulverizing a, well, yes, ONE NIGHT date.

Rich people and poor people with excellent taste have minimal decorations, white walls, the floor that pebble color I equate with wealth. I am not choking in piles of crap like my bag ladyish grandmother, but there’s a lot I can see just sitting here – a painting of a haggard being with flowers, flowers, a feminine shaped crotch, and floating skull that a borderline drag queen manic depressive biker type from Bay Ridge painted while on a manic 8 hour high, a huge Venturer brand dual cassette player with a broken 5 cd changer and large robot like speakers, topped with an Emerson brand cd player with a broken cassette player, and I will stop right there because I can tell you’re tired already and lists are a bit lazy. But honestly, Venturer and Emerson? Who even buys these brands, who plays cassette tapes, who isn’t using an iPod yet? Moi. All this off brand equipment take up 3 square feet, at least, and is the slightly updated version of broken cars in the yard, piles of busted tvs.

The minimum income gets me maximum help from Uncle Sam, who Bush would like to reduce to everybody’s father’s second wife and her one son, the ones who get it all while wondering why you don’t just get a job. I love it. Health care, medicine, nominal income, Sweet poverty deals, and $138 of groceries a month.

The Spirit, a Berkeley paper sold by the homeless, says Social Security Disability is called “Homeless Money”, because you can get a hotel for about 10 days a month on it. One of the cruelest and weirdest things they did in San Francisco is take away people’s shopping carts full of stuff, bring them to a warehouse that was hard to find and reach, and then obliterate all the blankets, collectables, mementos, and possible retail items horded by the very poor. Once a homeless and pretty mental guy left a box of his things at my place in New York, and, homeless mental style, would not come and get that box. If the box had somewhere to be, maybe part of him did, I don’t know, but I looked in that box and there was a copy of Donald Trump’s Art of The Deal. I knew this man was a goner, but that was really pretty bad. Still, I remembered it, and my brain is cram packed!