Stranged Voices, Stranged Writing: Against the Automatism of Perception

Matt Chelf
December 6, 2022

Portland-based journal, The Gravity of the Thing, just released a new anthology, Stranged Writing: A Literary Taxonomy, a collection of defamiliarized work designed to challenge reading conventions. In their co-written introduction to the anthology, editors Thea Prieto and Laurel Prieto defined defamiliarization as “an artistic technique that conveys the common in unfamiliar ways; that which has been taken for granted is reenvisioned, made strange, to heighten a reader’s perception of the familiar.” This technique, which troubles and mixes genre norms, is designed to slow the reader down and complicate what Victor Shklovsky calls the Automatism of Perception in his 1917 essay on the poetics of defamiliarization. Shklovsky’s essay provides a philosophical foundation for the literary journal and informs the creative and editorial practices behind Stranged Writing.

The journal’s founding editor, Matthew Robinson, demonstrated defamiliarization in a fictionalized interview with the long dead Russian literary critic. Shklovsky’s responses to Robinson’s questions illuminated the thinker’s ideas.

VS: Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Recontextualizing Shklovksy’s essay as an interview allowed Robinson to highlight the issue of singularity — how do we render an object, emotional experience, or character as “unfamiliar”? How do we imbue our images with gravity, so they teem with the mystery and danger that challenges and delights in equal turn? One answer lies in the observation of how Robinson’s work blended interview and essay and leveraged Shklovsky as a fantastical figure to make us read his work through a different lens.

The work in Stranged Writing is not easily categorized as story, poem, or essay, and this ambiguity was deliberate in changing the way we engage with them. For example, “Sanatorium for the Dead and Recently Deceased” by Claire Rez is framed as a mortician’s report; “Writing Home” by Michael Galat is written as a child’s letter home to parents from summer camp, but the letter is riddled with strikethroughs, creating two narratives, the facade and the subnarrative of truth; “Dark/ness” by Eli Ronick is styled as an etymology of the word ‘darkness’; “3 Recipes for Cabbage from my Grandmother” by Agata Antonow binds a recipe list with familial history and poetry. These writingsuse parody and pastiche to amalgamate a literary artifact that feels and operates like a traditional literary work, bearing semblance to a poem, a story, or an essay, without full abidance to the rules of those forms.

The works found in Stranged Writing might strike audiences as surrealist, but to call them defamiliarized suggests something more open-ended and capacious. Defamiliarization is a loose banner whose common thread is to make reading “difficult” through formal experimentation; it is a reading hermeneutic designed to induce and sustain contact between reader and work. The avoidant tendencies that Joshua James Amberson analyzes in “Contact: A Catalog,” a series of vignette reflections on the difficulty of interpersonal eye contact, mirrors the audience-work dynamic Stranged Writing challenges. Amberson writes, “We look away. Because it makes life easier, we look away.” Looking away is an automatized reaction to human contact, and yet, Amberson suggests, our humanity is at stake when we live in a culture where looking away is the norm. Defamiliarized work looks us in the eye and counters our gestures of avoidance.

Stranged Writing highlights the notion that how we read reveals who we are as people, a play off the Cartesian cogito, I think, therefore I am. The collection resists the orderly nature of consciousness to weave our experiences into fabric of familiarity. The value in this project is to see new once again, so we can recover the thrill of being alive. This practice opens doors of perception, novel pathways of thoughts, expressions, and modes of creativity, that the walls of familiarity rendered unthinkable. In an age of totalized digital content where speed, efficiency, and the intake of information marker success, Stranged Writing takes a defiant stance.  It asks for us to engage, not scroll, to think, not just document: it insists on our humanity.

Stranged Writing: A Literary Taxonomy is available from The Gravity of the Thing.

Matt Chelf resides in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at Portland Community College. His work has been featured in Northwest Review, Five Points, Hobart, Rabid Oak, Revolution John, The Hunger, ARMSTRONG Literary, Random Sample Review and Fluent Magazine.