The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation

New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left

In October 1978, Small Press Traffic ran an announcement for New Narrative writer Bruce Boone's newly formed marxism study group. The history of the group reveals surprising alliances.

One of the great lost poetry conversations of the 1970s occurred when Bruce Boone led the formation of a marxism study group at Small Press Traffic, the literary arts center in San Francisco. Boone modeled the group in part after his previous experience at the summer institute for the Marxist Literary Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which he memorialized in his novel Century of Clouds. At SPT, the group was comprised not of theorists from the academy, but of emerging local writers who aligned themselves with different avant-garde groups and grassroots political movements. The chief participants were Boone, Steve Abbott, and Robert Glück, who were identified with the New Narrative movement; Steve Benson and Ron Silliman, who were identified with the San Francisco wing of Language poetry; Kathleen Fraser, who soon after cofounded HOW(ever), a magazine for innovative feminist writing; and Denise Kastan, who was then the director of Small Press Traffic. 

Their coming together occurred at a catalytic moment when writers of their generation turned to exacting theoretical critique as a means to carry forward the activism of the New Left. But while the participants shared many assumptions about the value of this theory, they differed on how best to apply it to their writing. Weekly disagreements followed, and the group called it quits after a few short months. One trace of the group is signaled on the last page of Boone’s My Walk with Bob, when Glück telephones to cancel their meeting because “no one was going to show up.”[1]   In the scene, Boone hears the news and then gazes down at the floor of his apartment. The scattering of books by Herbert Marcuse, Chairman Mao, and Bob Perelman, as well as a copy of Blueboy lying open to a nice-looking centerfold, offer a closing allegory for his present political crisis. The balance of political theory, innovative writing, and sexual identity was as fleeting, and still somehow necessary, as the study group itself had been.

No lasting project ever came from the collective efforts of the group. The participants never coauthored a collaborative text, never co-coordinated a reading or lecture series, never coedited a literary magazine, and never cofounded a small press operation. The group is today rarely mentioned, though Silliman briefly recalls that they had “some TERRIFIC arguments. In every sense of that word.”[2]  Glück, in an essay about his early writing companions, briefly alludes to the group’s troubles, adding to it a pithy insignia: “The personal demolished the political, and after a few months we disbanded. From that era I recall Ron’s epithet (which Bruce and I thought delicious) The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation.”[3]

Without the anchor of a print record, the conversation that took place between the group participants remains unheard. Now thirty years later, the writers are studied, if they are studied at all, in self-encapsulated schools or movements. The writers are understood by social and aesthetic contiguity within such groupings, but, at the cross community level, they are cleaved from one another and from the ground conditions in which each developed a distinctive practice. When critics today champion such schools or movements in isolation — either by idealizing the notion of collective authorship within a group or by defending the embattled writers from powerful outside interests — then histories of the Bay Area fall too easily into misleading and divisive scenarios, such as the Poetry Wars or “the violence of expulsion,” as Perelman remarks in The Grand Piano.[4]

But the print record is not a total loss, and in what follows I want to revisit a small body of poems, narratives, and essays that, when approached with the slant view of history, demonstrate visible signs of mutual interest and productive exchange among the separate coalitions of the marxism study group.[5]  The participants were, it turns out, persistently invested in one other, even if they did not always operate on the same assumptions or goals. Their unlikely alliance is important now because it occurred at a formative moment when they had yet to produce the significant works on which their reputations later came to rest.

The traces of the study group not only provide a detailed glimpse of Bay Area poetry, a glimpse that cuts across the political, social, and aesthetic categories that organize recent histories of the era, but also enrich our understanding of debates that were conducted openly in public forums though documented almost exclusively in small press publications with limited runs.[6]  The traces reveal surprising affinities in the writers’ techniques and compositional methods, and also in their use of content — the stuff of life that invariably plays second fiddle to formalist readings of the avant-garde — such as dedications, riffs, casual asides, put-downs, and gossip. Some group traces highlight their polemics, such as Silliman (in an early essay) ridiculing the notion of audience laid out by Robert Glück (also in an early essay). Other traces show warmth and affection, like when Fraser and Glück address each other directly in poems or when they read together at USF's Little Theater.[7]  When Fraser writes her poem “Re: Echo” in response to Benson’s “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979), we cannot help but conclude that histories of this period will be lacking until they begin to triangulate the role of such relationships.

This essay concludes by examining one participant who cannot be pigeonholed in any single one of the different coalitions. Although Steve Benson is today mainly associated with Language poetry — he is after all one of ten coauthors of the “collective autobiography” The Grand Piano — several of his most important works from this era stand in closer proximity to the queer practices and politics of Boone, Glück, and Abbott. Benson’s writing deserves special attention here because it combines a profound and dedicated investigation of language with elements of personal and abject content that closely typify the “emotional moving forward” that Abbott associates with New Narrative.[8]   I want to suggest, for these reasons, that Benson can best be understood as carving out interstitial space between the precepts of each group.

“Terrific Arguments”

The Bay Area has long been home to study groups comprised of poets meeting to discuss, debate, and perform intellectual inquiry outside the halls of academia. Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan attended Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly group of “philosophical anarchists” in the 1940s. Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen bonded at the Berkeley Buddhist Church’s Friday study group in the 1950s. Paul Mariah was a member of a writing workshop called the “Society for Individual Rights” which served as the original impetus for his magazine Man-Root in the late 1960s. And an older Duncan convened the “Homer Group” for the weekly study of Greek translation in the 1980s.[9]

So there was nothing out of the ordinary when a brief notice in the October 1978 issue of the newsletter Poetry Flash announced that a study group dedicated to “Marxism and Theory of Writing” would convene its first meeting at Small Press Traffic on Thursday the 19th of the month at 8 p.m.[10]  SPT was an ambitious nonprofit organization that was rapidly expanding its community programming during these years. Founded originally in rented space inside a commercial bookstore in 1974, the organization relocated to its own retail operation in 1976 and soon boasted an inventory of more than three thousand titles.[11]  “Every available inch is crammed with books,” noted one awestruck observer.[12]  By 1978 a series of regular readings and community programs had helped to transform SPT into a hub of activity for a vibrant cross section of emerging writers. Much of the work that later became identified with New Narrative was nurtured in the weekly workshops that Glück began leading there in the spring of 1978. Prose writers met with Glück on Mondays, and poets met with him on Thursdays, but there was much intermingling and back and forth because friendship tended to take precedence over rigid genre distinctions. The regular readings at SPT (for the “Living Room Series”) featured writers ranging from Boone in January of that year to Perelman and Robert Grenier on the night before the study group held its first meeting — with Sukey Durham and Frances Jaffer on the schedule only a week later.[13]  Considering that Jaffer cofounded (HOW)ever with Fraser and Beverley Dahlen in 1983, one readily gets a sense here of the intersecting and overlapping relationships that proliferated in the local poetry scene.[14]

October 1978 was a period when the coordinators of the Grand Piano series, which is today historically identified with Language poetry, similarly reached out to poets across an array of Bay Area enclaves. The coordinators hosted Duncan on October 3, Dahlen and Tom Mandel on the 10th, Glück and Boone on the 17th (two nights before the study group first convened), and Lyn Hejinian and Grenier on the 24th. If ever two separate reading series could be likened to the student exchange programs at schools and universities, then it might look something like the crisscrossing schedules that year for SPT and Grand Piano. These few months were a surprisingly amiable time for the community, at least on the surface, and observers seemed to take notice. Tim Jacobs, for example, who tended to fill his Poetry Flash column with snarky gossip, delivered an unusually good report on the Glück and Boone event at Grand Piano: “an intelligent presentation of insights on Boone’s part and a totally fascinating selection of work by Glück — a good reading.”[15]

Such praise mattered deeply because the nascent Language poets, already committed to assailing the ideology of the isolated author, were now attempting to do the same for the isolated community — or at least the isolated enclave of their usual small press audience. A case in point: Silliman, about a month before the first meeting of the study group, conceived of a plan to expand the limits of their audience by delivering a public reading of his long poem Ketjak while standing at the corner of Powell and Market. Benson, writing in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, captured the social aspiration of the scene when he described it as “a most democratic and definitive garden party of the urban streets, with the prolifery of the situation.”[16]  Here was the wish for a new polis, one called into being not by divisive platform rhetoric, but by the nonaggressive vulnerability of a public recitation. Surely some thought Silliman was simply craving attention, but according to David Highsmith’s evocative report, he was greeted by “perhaps the most varied, abundant and liquid ‘poetry audience’ recently to be approached as such. […] Each of hundreds of unsuspecting passerby during the non-stop oratory had the opportunity to experience the reading according to his or her uninformed guess as to the nature of the reader’s pulpiteering, profiteering, or political exhortation — not that Ron was trying to pull anyone’s leg; he just read his work and let people draw their own conclusions. The performance should perhaps be remembered as an historic demonstration of the capability of spoken language as an architectural element to define a social environment and delineate space within a context of communication.”[17]

Benson likewise sought to expand the environment for his work, except in his case it meant accepting invitations to events with writers who had long and vocal commitments to gay liberation. Only one week after the SPT study group convened, he joined Glück, Abbott, Paul Mariah, and Ed Mycue for a group reading at Intersection (a long-running poetry venue in San Francisco). Mariah was the most established of the readers. During the 1970s he edited the influential journal Man-Root (or Manroot), which played an instrumental role not only in publishing a generation of new gay writers, but also in introducing Jack Spicer to a younger readership when his work was out of print. Glück was becoming known as a regular contributor to Gay Sunshine. His poems frequently appeared in its pages (including several spotlighted on the back cover), and his early book Andy received a glowing review there in 1974. Abbott’s book Wrecked Hearts was fresh off the press, and through his reviews and social commentary he was quickly making a name for himself among local writers and activists. As one of the only gay poets identified with Language poetry, Benson thus aligned himself with writers who rarely, if ever, made an appearance in the pages of Language-oriented magazines like This or Hills — or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which first arrived from New York in February 1978.

Such was the immediate context for the establishment of the marxism study group at SPT. It convened during a moment of rare opportunity for building partnerships and coalitions, but it ultimately stood on a fragile foundation that could not support the weight of political and literary differences. The practical problem, as I’ve noted, is that the study group did not leave much of a paper trail. How can we begin to map the discussions that took place? One clue for a starting point is that the printed announcement for the group came with a reading list for Marx, Jameson, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Eagleton, Marcuse, Sartre, Barthes, and Althusser.[18]  Major translations of several of these theorists first appeared in the 1970s, even making it possible to pinpoint which texts were read, such as Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which first appeared in English in 1971. The interest that the participants had in these theorists suggests a surprising degree of consensus about the intellectual legacy of the New Left, the Students for a Democratic Society, and May 1968. This convergence of rallying points and grassroots possibility occurred when many of the study group participants were activists in college. Their coming together a decade later shows that their youthful ideals never fully disappeared. Rather, they found themselves shifting to a conceptual framework in which their own writing practice would soon show itself to be fluent. This was the moment that some have called the turn to theory. One way to reimagine the conversations of the group is thus to conduct a survey of each participant’s individual response to the tradition of Western Marxism: its views of literature, language, history, power, and more. This turns out to be relatively easy because the writing output for almost all of them flourished in the discourse of theory at some point during the late 1970s.

Silliman (at left, in a photograph by Alan Bernheimer, reading at the corner of Powell and Market Streets in San Francisco) is the one participant whose reputation for dialectical analysis has never quite left him behind, and this reputation is no doubt deserved because he spent much of the late 1970s formulating a sophisticated poetics that would disrupt the communicative properties of language (a regime, as he saw it) just as a revolutionary force disrupts the productive structures of capitalism. Silliman’s most celebrated technique was the New Sentence, which has since had a major impact on contemporary poetic discourse.[19]  It is often said that the New Sentence hearkens back to a Modernist radicalism (e.g. fragmentation, parataxis, syntactical disruption) that is antithetical to the Communist demand for literary realism. The avant-garde, after all, is hardly the literature of the masses. Silliman, however, pulls off a dialectical sleight of hand by claiming to possess a deeper fidelity to materialist critique than do any of his detractors who equate experimentation with elitism. In The Chinese Notebook, a long poem composed around the time of the study group, he recalls when a “member of the Old Left” dismissed the whole idea of a poetry that does not “communicate.” Silliman answered that he wants to “experience language directly” not as a “means to an end,” which would be a kind of bourgeois utilitarian thinking, but rather as a refusal of use value in the form of an “unalienated language.”[20]  In Tjanting, a constraint-based prose poem composed in the wake of the study group, Silliman displays a growing distance from canonical figures of Marxism, and it is tempting to speculate that this distance may reflect his disillusionment with the debates that took place at SPT. He writes, “Economic difficulties have forced the Engels family to sell the textile factory that provided funds for the writing of Karl Marx’s Capital to a real estate firm, wch plans to demolish it early next year.”[21]  Here he signals that he is not simply making an academic argument when it comes to his political and literary intervention. When he writes the satiric line “Marxist Literary Group cash bar (Potrero Room, Hyatt) at the MLA” (197), he is arguably taking a shot at Boone, who was a member of the same Marxist Literary Group, even if he did not become a career academic. Despite this baulking, Silliman’s attachment to the labor-based platform of the Old Left is never entirely abandoned, and it occasionally resurfaces in a game of one-upmanship with critical models based on gender, race, or imperialism. One line in particular expresses the continued privileging of class-oriented arguments above all else: “Zimbabwe: class struggle in the guise of race war” (111).

For Fraser, the politics of gender would mean not writing in the same poetic forms handed down by a patriarchal tradition and taught in schools, but nor would it mean a politics that took anticapitalism as its privileged starting point. Fraser and the founders of HOW(ever) sought to critique the gendered division of labor through an extension of second-wave feminism, starting with the mantra that “the personal is the political” and developing its continued implications (such as body politics and revision of intellectual history and the literary canon). Fraser was dissatisfied though with the expressivist tendencies in much feminist poetry. In the first issue of HOW(ever) her coeditor — the poet Frances Jaffer — questioned the assumption that “now is the time for women to write understandable poetry about their own lives, and with feeling, with the […] undeveloped self in prominent display.”[22]  The key word here is “understandable,” for privilege and power are deemed irreducible to the question of knowledge. According to Jaffer, “the myths of a culture are embodied in its language, its lexicon, its very syntactical structure. To focus attention on language and to discover what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience. Certainly one should be read side-by-side with the other.”

This fusion of profeminist content with unconventional form was, however, an anomaly that had to be vigorously defended from critics on either side. Dodie Bellamy, a New Narrative writer who studied with Fraser, recognized early on that trying to have it both ways would lead to added scrutiny: “Due to similar structural characteristics such as disruption and nonsequential phrasing, Fraser’s writing is often associated with various male avant-garde writers who, ironically, have promoted an aesthetic that devalues the emotional vulnerability to which she has always been committed.”[23]  Here the dots connect back to the study group, for Silliman was one of those very same male avant-garde writers implied by such a comparison. Fraser did not buy into the idea that formal experimentation was the exclusive domain of male writers nor that it was somehow antifeminist, and the SPT conversations surely entailed a discussion of this conundrum. In the years that followed Fraser pursued and successfully realized the possibility of expressing (to quote Bellamy) “subjective experiences through the rearrangement of syntax and meaning.”

Boone and Glück found common ground with the feminist avant-garde by promoting a libidinal critique of power relations through experiments with narrative structure. They spearheaded a movement called New Narrative that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, embraces the oppositional politics of novels and short stories, as well as less fiction-oriented experiments in translation, cultural criticism, drama and even poetry.[24]  A key example is Boone’s Century of Clouds, the novelistic memoir about the summer meetings of the Marxism and Theory Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, during the summer of 1977, the same year that gay activist Robert Hillsborough was murdered in San Francisco and that Anita Bryant (the orange juice spokeswoman) launched her antigay crusade “Save Our Children” in Dade County, Florida. Boone’s novel features many celebrated theorists: Stanley is Stanley Aronowitz, Terry is Terry Eagleton, and, most important for Boone, Fred is Fredric Jameson (“He’s so large, like the world”).[25]  But Boone had his own ideas about how best to achieve social justice, as he shows in one scene in which all the Marxists get together for a game of volleyball — the “politically correct choice because […] it hasn’t been ‘commercialized’ and ‘it’s never a spectator sport’” (64). At least this is the “ideology,” explains Boone. In reality, he says, “volleyball brought out hidden conflicts that had never been resolved, and often were not even discussed. Volleyball turned out to extend certain power realities based on sex.” Boone goes on to describe the celebrities of literary theory who espouse social justice but who become mean-spirited bullies on the volleyball court. Exposing these “power realities based on sex” represents one intervention among many that Boone and New Narrative writers sought to make on the political Left. (Other interventions, particularly by Boone and Glück, include the study of popular culture, the politics of pornography, the recovery of gay poetics before Stonewall and Gay Liberation, and many more.)

While the study group participants had a great deal in common, their differences were at the heart of the arguments that led to the dissolution of the group. Fraser, for example, was close enough to local Language poets that Lyn Hejinian published her Magritte Series (1977) as a Tuumba chapbook (in the same series that featured Benson’s The Busses and Silliman’s Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps). But Fraser, as she recalls later, had “ambivalent feelings” about the work, for she was “by turns, intrigued, bored, seriously engaged, wary.”[26]  “I knew Language Writing had arrived,” she says, when her students at San Francisco State University began turning in assignments that featured poetry made up of “collaged fragments or sentences or paragraphs juxtaposed in amusing unexpected ways […] a more distanced, heady relationship to the writing, cutting back on the more obvious preoccupations with Self” (65). Fraser points out that her friend Glück likewise found that his students reflected the influence, an influence that she concedes was “timely, necessary, and attractive.” Fraser worries though that the students did not understand the original political context for the techniques, a context that she knew firsthand from the marxism study group.

Fraser makes a point of emphasizing that Benson was one of the earliest Language writers to “put her on alert.”[27]  She means this in a good way: he did not strike her as entirely conforming to any close-knit or self-segregated group. Benson is, in fact, a key figure in the landscape of Fraser’s Each Next: Narratives, her 1980 publication from the Figures Press. Fraser addresses a series of journal entries and imaginary letters in response to Benson’s early transcribed improvisations “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979).[28]  The myth of Narcissus is traditionally about self-reflection, so it is an allegory for identity or sameness. This is not the case for Fraser, however, who contends that Benson’s revision of the myth relies on the establishment of difference, or what she calls “deflection.” Gertrude Stein’s notion of repetition with difference hovers in the background here, but so too does H.D.’s idea that mythology can be appropriated and reimagined in the present. Fraser personifies Narcissus as Benson himself, the poet who “gazes with longing, trying to find himself” in the pool of language. She poses her voice as feminized Echo:

September 7
Dear Narcissus,

Is language, in fact, the pool? Looking into your words as if they represented a surface of water (Narcissus gazes with longing, trying to find himself), do I then find me, a word I know? Yes. No. Some deflection, in-flexing of where we might overlap. Sitting on your lap, a word comes back to me, as an echo. So I divest myself of the disembodied me … Echo is She, who watches Narcissus look for himself and returns to himself, slightly altered, by her very attentiveness.

Where am I?


Echo [29]

Fraser’s feminist intervention here is twofold. First she raises the question about language in a way that appears to align Echo and Narcissus with the gendered critique that, according to Fraser, operates in some Language poetry. She puts it most clearly when she writes, “Echo is She.” But Fraser also holds fast to the idea that narrative aspects of myth can create connections between individuals (“where we might overlap”). The work is neither strictly about language; nor does it reject language as a site of inquiry. Rather, it slides back and forth between these positions (“Yes. No.”).

Notice that Fraser’s response to Benson’s original commentary on his own text effectively constitutes a third level of deflection. This incremental back-and-forth, like the sound wave of an echo, can apparently keep going. Fraser’s letter dated September 10 opens by declaring, “While you were gone, I divided into two even more distinct territories” (Each Next 54). Again in the voice of Echo, Fraser writes of her “belief in mutablity.” She adds, “It was, of course, a question of language,” but then she moves back into a narrative mode:

In what appeared to be home, I was also alone. I missed our talks, which always pull me somewhere new, but in your friendly red wagon with its creaky wheels. So I began to write about my grandfather, who was out-of-order, displaced from his known function and terrain. These stories were written within a solid and digested tradition of linked sentences. Achieving their life gave me a kind of satisfaction I’d not known. (54)

Is “home” in fact language, as in Heidegger’s idea that language is the “house of being”? Rather than move into conceptual or philosophical territory, Fraser refers to a sentimental story about her grandfather that appears earlier in the book. Not only is it autobiographical and narrative, as she says, but it also relies on “linked sentences” that fly in the face of the paratactic and “torqued” structures that Silliman promoted under the banner of the New Sentence. Fraser finds power in the ability of a story to reflect on its own construction. And on this point Benson may have held greater appeal for Fraser because he did not reject narrative entirely, as we’ll see below.

The ties between Fraser and New Narrative are even more extensive. Fraser wrote an appreciative review of Boone’s My Walk with Bob and Glück’s Family Poems in the pages of Poetry Flash. She praises their use of intimacy (“like a piece of journal writing or a letter to a trusted friend”) to discuss theoretical precepts that would be more likely expected in a formal essay.[30]  Fraser also contends that Boone and Glück extend feminist questions to the analysis of masculinity. In the days before feminism evolved into the academic field of gender studies, Fraser praises New Narrative for investigating the idea that gender is a determining factor in literary structure. Her support of New Narrative has a playful side as well. In Each Next, Fraser writes a prose piece about Glück’s dog Lily, who appears in his own books Elements of a Coffee Service and Jack the Modernist. (That is three cameos for one dog. A hat trick!) Fraser’s poem “Fried. lily” establishes an affectionate double entendre, first to the dog’s name, and second to Benson, who inspired the title of her poem when he made a typo on the word “friendly” in a personal letter. Fraser’s other poem “Lily, Lois, & Flaubert: the site of loss” appears in the first issue of Soup, as does Benson’s poem “To Myself”).[31]  Consider, too, that Glück writes a poem for Fraser in his book Reader and provides blurbs for a few of her books. These connections demonstrate mutual support that lasted well beyond the short-lived study group.

Not everyone was on congenial terms. New Narrative writers came together around the view that the avant-garde had gone stagnant in the 1970s. Boone objected that writers, and here he implied Language poets, were turning inward to an “increasing refinement of technique and available forms, without yet being able to profit greatly from the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers, among others.”[32]  Or take Abbott’s review of the work of another Language poet, Barrett Watten’s 1–10, in Poetry Flash. Having read the book “six times or more,” he says, he finds the “work is incredibly dense and continues to fascinate […], more in irritation than in pleasure.”[33]

Abbott finds two intractable faults. First, he dislikes the diction that is so “heavy with scientific bureaucratic and abstract terminology”: words like oscillate, semantic, microstructure, parabola, electrostatic, and so on. Modern poets have appropriated scientific jargon at least since Eliot characterized poetic feelings as a “catalyst” or since Zukofsky, more closely aligned with Watten, used the second law of thermodynamics to trace a line between Shakespeare and the present. But Abbott will have none of it. He laments, “Those who get a charge out of such terminology (or who don’t like to be ‘charged’ by poetry, if that’s the point), may be pleased. I’m not, at least not beyond the tantalizing shock of seeing such a highly specialized vocabulary leaping to life (??) in a realm where I would least expect it.”

Second, Abbott faults the over-riding paranoia of the poem’s landscape. It’s not that Abbott expects poetry to embrace joyous optimism, but the opposite extreme leaves him at a loss: “I cannot read far without feeling a terrible solipsistic claustrophobia.” These are harsh words indeed. Abbott qualifies his remarks by conceding that “on its own terms, the terms of form, the work excels in inventiveness.” Boone elsewhere makes a virtually identical point about Silliman’s poetry, so we can’t simply say that the theoretical precepts of Language poetry were lost upon their New Narrative detractors. Abbott understands the precepts; he just doesn’t agree with them. Worse, he links the erasure of subjectivity in the work to a desire to “flee the guilt and complicity of being-in-society.” So the no-self of formally disruptive poetry is in fact an abdication of responsibility. Abbott writes: “The virtue of Barrett Watten’s writing is that he so relentlessly focuses on language as a map, or to be more precise, an overlapping of maps. The problem of it, for me, is that it does so little else.”

While Watten was not actually in the study group, these objections to his writing were inevitably the fallout of conflicting positions that never resolved themselves after the study group disbanded. Shortly after members went their separate ways, Boone wrote in Poetry Flash “that language poetry is unquestionably the hegemony movement of the day and that, on the other hand, it lacks a developed social sense. Poetic practice in the future might well involve getting these aspects together.”[34]  Boone’s alternative was to deploy narrative in a way that would “create the need for an audience.” This is reminiscent of Althusser’s notion that ideology operates by interpolating or hailing a subject, except in the case of New Narrative, the ideology would not be state power, but the transformational queer politics that the writers welcomed in their roles as social activists. Remember, too, that Althusser was on the study group reading list, so it is not far fetched to see an influence on Boone’s thinking here. Boone also invokes almost messianic terms, which may have stemmed from the Walter Benjamin on the list. “In a poetry such as this,” writes Boone, “we can see both possibilities for present literary concern as well as signals for a future. A future that is certainly on the other side of our present writing, but one that may nonetheless reflect back to us some idea of what poetry and society might be in a place still to come.”[35]

Recall, by way of contrast, that the most vociferous practitioners of Language poetry alleged that narrative was a politically regressive form of writing. Silliman, at approximately the same time that the study group was meeting, asserted that his own goal was to “search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.”[36]  Such poetry would be not the product of the marketplace, not the reification of social forces, but a “philosophy of practice in language.” At its most rudimentary this poetry was intended to explore the materialism of language by disrupting signification, syntax, and grammatical structure, thus resurrecting a space for agency outside the contractual powers of normative communication. Although New Narrative writers were invested in a queer future that can hardly be called normative, their reliance on narrative techniques identified with realism resulted in an impasse with language-centered poetics. That the study group foundered on this impasse is not difficult to imagine.

Six Degrees of Steve Benson

But wait a minute, we might say: aren’t such group categories just overgeneralized caricatures that don’t really apply to the individual writers, at least not without simplification or distortion? When Boone accused Language poetry of being the “hegemony movement” of the day, Silliman replied in Poetry Flash by denying that any “such identity exists.”[37]  Silliman writes, “At best that group noun refers to a wide body of overlapping concerns and family resemblances. There exists no substantial agreement.” Silliman is right to point to exceptions that complicate the shorthand of group designations. But what best gives his statement credibility is Benson, and — here’s the really ironic part — what makes Benson the exception is his proximity to New Narrative.

This might seem a curious assertion because Benson is in many ways a key figure of Bay Area Language poetry. He was a one-time coordinator of the Grand Piano reading series. He was integral to Poets Theater, where he wrote and performed in plays with Carla Harryman and many others. He gave an early presentation for the talk series held in Bob Perelman’s apartment that was published in the first volume of those talks. (He gave other presentations as well.) Benson’s work appeared in This, Hills, Tottels, Miam, and Poetics Journal, and he was a frequent contributor to the East Coast organs for Language poetry including L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Roof, Dog City, and A Hundred Posters. He also read at the Ear Inn in 1979. His early publishers included The Figures, Tuumba, Whale Cloth, and Potes and Poets — and again, all of these outlets are closely aligned with Language poetry. The scholarly neglect of Benson’s work, however, means that few have ever appreciated the degree to which his work overlaps with other collectives in the Bay Area.

Recall again that aside from David Melnik, Benson was the only openly gay poet associated with Language poetry in the Bay Area scene. Benson’s sexual identity would not necessarily make him in a more likely participant in New Narrative, but the fact is that his early track record for writing and publishing does not conform to any exclusive group or movement. Not only did he read with New Narrative writers (as noted above), but his work also appeared in the first issue of Abbott’s magazine Soup, which was virtually ground zero for New Narrative writing. Or consider the reception of his work. When Boone criticizes Language poets (especially Silliman, Watten, and Perelman) in a long essay in the second issue of Soup, he makes a notable exception for Benson’s “Views of Communist China.”[38]  (To summarize briefly: Benson re-creates his bedroom in the talk space of Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s apartment and leads the audience through a tour of individual object and memories. The performance arguably seeks to invert the norms of coming out, for Benson invites the audience into his private space rather than taking himself out into the public world.) On the one hand, Boone suggests that Benson’s talk, despite its title, is too dissociated from any real-world politics in China. On the other hand, a queer dimension of the work intrigues Boone because Benson displays “truly intimate feelings with what appears […] as a sometimes alarming openness.”[39]  Boone finds Benson’s openness uncharacteristic of other talks in the volume, so he becomes irritated when a second poet interrupts and “takes advantage of [Benson’s] vulnerability” (9). For his part, Boone much prefers the end of the piece when Bob Perelman joins Benson to perform the role of a young girl in a scripted interview. Boone remarks, “Well, I like the gay aspects of this scene. But it makes an odd ending” (9).

At other times Benson’s association with Language poets caused difficulties for his relationship with other writers, including Abbott, who was coeditor of Poetry Flash in the years following the study group at Small Press Traffic. When Benson reviewed Harryman’s Percentage for Poetry Flash, Abbott publicly criticized him for “amorphous weaving about a site and not wanting to clarify your stand.”[40]  Another staff member at the magazine accused Benson of “spinning into his own word game instead of explaining the book.” Benson defended himself in a series of letters with Abbott that accompanied the publication of the review, writing: “I prefer to find my gyroscope within myself rather than in deference to terms and opinions and traditions handed down to me.”[41]

Yet this inner gyroscope often tilted in the direction of New Narrative. Early works like Steel Idea (Miam Magazine, 1978) and As Is (Figures, 1978), published around the time of the study group, are best described as hybrid constructs that stretch the divide between paratactic and non-narrative sentences (a defining feature of Language poetry) and journal-like entries that describe sexual escapades in a way characteristic of New Narrative. Consider this narrative passage in Benson’s first major collection As Is:

I had asked Paul to let me roll a joint before he left. My plan was to smoke it and go see a double bill at a gay porno theater. I figured I’d take my contacts out at Larry’s before going to the beach. I had only gotten my contacts the day before, my first pair, and I wasn’t sure how I’d like seeing a movie with them. However, I thought I’d prefer to have everything new. The movie idea was new to me too.

It’s cheaper if you go before noon. I was surprised that there were some boys on the screen I really liked. Not all muscle men or tough guys. I became lost in certain sequences.

When I came into the theater I was amazed at how dark it was. Maybe I couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t see the rows of seats because the image on the screen was all black and red. After watching for a couple minutes I realized I still had my sunglasses on. I was rarely aware that I was stoned.

After about an hour I realized that I was coming a little bit in my pants. I had a nylon swimsuit on under my pants and I didn’t want lots of stains when I showed up at the beach. I became aware of my penis and started to stroke it a little bit. I opened up my pants in the dark and let the head of my penis out of the swimsuit.


The contacts sort of made the images on the screen swirl around. For a long time they had vague circular edges but after a while I began to focus more completely, and the blacks and whites contrasted more remarkably and the image was terrifically present.[42]

When we read this passage in light of the study group’s conflicting views toward erotic content, Benson’s liminal position with respect to libidinal politics becomes clear. In an early essay, “Caricature,” Glück argues that gay porn is politically subversive because class stratification does not define what makes an appropriate or inappropriate sexual partner.[43]  Silliman adopts a diametrically opposite view in Tjanting: “Porn is the presentation of an unequal power relation between partners in the act of sex for purposes of commerce” (197, emphasis added). In Ketjak Silliman suggests that sexual content usefully refocuses the reader’s attention, but he neglects to acknowledge any other use for oppositional politics: “Insert opaque erotic data, stimulate focus.”[44]  In “Sunset Debris,” he goes even further: “Isn’t it that certain forms of language, for example of erotic content, focus perception away from the words and the syntagmemic chain, a world suppressed in reference to another?”[45]  Silliman might be paraphrased as saying that more sex means less language. Benson’s poem, though, is closer to Glück’s notion, for he finds himself attracted to men across a range of class positions. When he loses his contact lens on the floor of the theater (a scenario that is both abject and rarified), he finds the blurred image of orgies on the screen even more enticing — as if to suggest that queer relations can leap across social differences better than any other form of critique.

Benson may have appealed to those not affiliated with Language poetry because he gave off a strong sense of independence, never writing according to a particular playbook or groupthink. In any event, he is best thought of as a poet who stands between groups, meandering back and forth and troubling the very binaries that govern much of my discussion above. Benson ultimately presents a limit case for the applicability of those group alignments. I’ll close with a passage from his 1981 poem The Bussess, in which Benson can be heard thinking through this in-between space, or what he here calls the “interstitial and intermittent”:

    To change the subject I
want to become more actively historical.
This is typical of my age? I have been accused by
    those of my not really friends who would in effect
  consider themselves active that I’m not, that is, that I
compromise myself by doubting my convictions or most
powerful bonding, shall we call them, impulses — that I
        don’t follow through on what they would like to see
    center for the whole, generate unity — instead, …
 but knowing requires a self-assurance that’s untrue to me.
I accept the validity of bonding, the necessity of community
 value for meaning, but see my life and context as solitary,
    interstitial and intermittent, and don’t yet understand
        what activity I can undertake without compromising
     that knowledge of my value — which I take to be positive! [46]


An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry of the 1970s” conference, University of Maine, Orono, in June 2008, as part of a panel entitled “New Narrative — New Sentence — New Left,” together with Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw. For research assistance with small press publications cited here, I wish to thank Michael Basinski, curator, James Maynard, assistant curator, and staff members at the Poetry Collection, the University at Buffalo. I also wish to thank Stephanie Young for her provocations in response to a penultimate draft of the essay.


1.  Bruce Boone, My Walk with Bob (San Francisco: Black Star Press, 1979), 33.

2.  Ron Silliman, email to Poetics Listserv, November 11, 1984. Previously published in poetics@, ed. Joel Kuszai (New York: Roof Books, 1999), 62.

3.  Robert Glück, “Long Note on New Narrative,” in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, ed. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott (Toronto: Coach House, 2004), 32–33.

4.  Perelman writes, “But the more interesting moments of judgment are not built around the violence of expulsion. There’s the writing I love, admire, envy.” Bob Perelman, The Grand Piano 2:87. See De Villo Sloan, “‘Crude Mechanical Access’ or ‘Crude Personism’: A Chronicle of One San Francisco Bay Area Poetry War,” Sagetrieb 4, nos. 2–3 (Fall–Winter 1985): 241–54.

5.  Note that I mainly use the lower case “marxism” throughout this essay in order to suggest the flexibility that the participants hoped to locate in the tradition of Marxist critique. I take the term “coalition” from Eleana Kim, “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement,” Readme 4 (Spring–Summer 2001). Although I am mainly focusing on participants in the Marxist study group, Kim points to a large number of coalitions in the Bay Area and notes how often these groups came into conflict:

The poetry scenes of San Francisco in the mid-to late 1970s were varied, with “coalitions” forming at different venues — “Third World” writers such as those associated with Ishmael Reed’s journal Yardbird, and women’s collectives — asserting their positions through networks of presses, readings and publications. New Americans of the New York School, the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance were still important figures, as indexed by their frequent appearances at benefits and special events. The First and Second Annual San Francisco Poetry Festivals in 1976 and 1977 featured, among others, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Miriam Patchen, Ishmael Reed, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Thom Gunn, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Andrei Codrescu, and Robert Bly. Next to readings by gay, women, and Third World poets, and the highly visible and well-established Beats and New Americans, the names of Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, and Kit Robinson began to appear with increasing frequency in the calendar of readings in San Francisco’s monthly poetry newsletter, Poetry Flash.

6.  In The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), Bob Perelman exemplifies this position when he writes, “language writing is best understood as a group phenomenon, and that it is one whose primary tendency is to do away with the reader as a separable category” (31). At the heart of the group phenomenon, he notes, were collaborations and “parallel projects” undertaken in the 70s and 80s (33). According to Perelman, such cooperation is a mark of progress because it explodes the ideology of the heroic genius who scribbles away in isolation. A communal or collaborative model is further said to facilitate a reading practice that is less hierarchical (or consumer-oriented) and more participatory (or activist).  

7.  Glück and Fraser read at the Little Theater reading series on March 13, 1979. The reading is announced in Poetry Flash 72 (March 1979): 8.

8.  Steve Abbott, “Notes on Boundaries, New Narrative,” Soup 4 (1985): 81.

9.  See Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 10; Gary Snyder, “Foreword, Highest and Driest: For Philip Zenshin’s Poetic/Dharma, Gary Snyder,” in The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), xxvii; and Paul Mariah and Richard Tagett, prefatory acknowledgments in Man-Root 1 (1969): ii.

10.  Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2.  

11.  Robert Glück, “Trafficking in San Francisco,” Contact II, nos. 8–9 (Summer 1978): 5–6.

12.  The observer continues, “A new bookstore has opened in San Francisco. Small Press Traffic is the name and every available inch is crammed with books. The poetry selection is excellent.” Poetry Flash 47 (January 1977): 2.

13.  I discuss Durkheim’s role in the Left/Write conference in “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry,” American Literature 81, no. 4 (December 2009): 805–832. Other notable readers for SPT in 1978 include Leslie Scalapino, Gloria Anzaldúa, Beverly Dahlen, Jerry Ratch, and Steve Benson.

14.  A case in point: on Tuesday, June 27, SPT held a benefit reading at Intersection (another popular site for poetry series) that featured a lineup of Mary Oppen, Leslie Scalapino, Boone, Tom Mandel, and Michael Palmer. Tuesday, however, was the regular night for Grand Piano readings, so the original event for that night had to be moved to Thursday in order to avoid a conflict. The Grand Piano event was no less than the much-celebrated performance of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 with voices by Steve Benson, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman, and with piano by Bob Perelman. Normally such snafus could be avoided because the many different series laid claim to different nights of the week, but not when a third party like Intersection was involved.

15.  Tim Jacob, “Rambles,” Poetry Flash 68 (November 1978): 4.

16.  Steven Benson, “Ketjak in San Francisco,” L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979): 23.

17.  Quoted in Tim Jacobs, “Rambles,” Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2.

18.  Advertisement for Small Press Traffic (with readings, workshop, and study group schedules), Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2. For the Althusserian Marxism of Language Poetry, see Andrew Ross, “The New Sentence and the Commodity Form,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (New York: Routledge, 1988), 361–380, and Geoffrey Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

19.  Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987).

20.  Silliman, The Chinese Notebook (New York: Ubu Editions, 2004), 173–74.

21.  Silliman, Tjanting (Berkeley: The Figures, 1981), 165.

22.  Frances Jaffer and Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” HOW(ever) 1, no. 1 (May 1983): 1.

23.  Dodie Bellamy, review of Something (even human voices) in the foreground, a lake, by Kathleen Fraser, Poetry Flash 134 (May 1984): 10.

24.  Harris, “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry.”

25.  Bruce Boone, Century of Clouds (San Francisco: Hoddypoll Press, 1980), 7.

26.  Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 63–65.

27.  Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable, 67.

28.  Benson’s two poems appear in his book Blindspots (Iowa City: Whale Cloth, 1981). He describes the poems as “a transcript” that he “slightly edited” (5) from a taped, improvised performance in Baltimore in 1979. Benson explains:

It opens with a reading of the poem “Echo” and a spontaneous monologue, and it goes on through increasingly improvisationally-derived readings of things I had written and consecutive reworkings of that monologue listened to through earphones or speakers from tape, moving between the brick wall and the audience (this time in tiers) among my tape recorders, the things I’d written, and the ladders. (5)

In improvisation, the goal is often to distance the self or the controlling ego and foreground the materiality of language. But an estranged self does not dominate in Blindspots. Benson turns again to his inner gyroscope when he performs an interpretive activity during the composition itself. The work literally folds back in on itself. The multiple voices of the transcription are organized on the page much like Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, a work that was published not long before Blindspots. Note that Weiner is also cited several times in Benson’s text.

29.  Kathleen Fraser, Each Next: Narratives (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980), 51.

30.  Kathleen Fraser, “My Walk with Bob and Family Poems; A Letter of Review,” Poetry Flash 88 (July 1980): 8.

31.  Rob Halpern writes, “Soup is significant because it was able — among other things — to stimulate and contain community differences, while registering the social and aesthetic antagonisms that traversed the avant-garde literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1980. Soup does the invaluable work of making the dynamic conversations and fault lines between divergent literary tendencies and their related constituencies audible, without indulging in hostile positioning, or ad hominem bickering.” See Rob Halpern, “Restoring ‘China,’” Jacket 39 (2010). Benson’s “To Myself,” also published in Blue Book (New York: The Figures/Roof: 1988), 32, reads:

What happens when you don’t have enough time to be alone?
What is the hidden assumption of that question?
What if I don’t come out to enough other people?
What if I don’t tell them how I feel?
I get angry.
What is the answer
hidden in that unanswered question, that

32.  Bruce Boone, “Remarks on Narrative,” afterword to Family Poems, by Robert Glück (San Francisco: Black Star Series, 1979), 29.

33.  Steve Abbott, review of 1–10, by Barrett Watten, Poetry Flash 103 (October 1981): 8.

34.  Bruce Boone, “A Few Remarks on the Perelman/Soldofsky Dispute,” Poetry Flash 76 (July 1979): 5.

35.  Boone, “Remarks on Narrative,” 32.

36.  Silliman, The New Sentence, 17.

37.  Silliman, “Flashback,” Poetry Flash 77 (August 1979): 6.

38.  Steve Benson, “Views of Communist China,” in “Talks” special issue of Bob Perelman’s magazine Hills 6–7 (1980): 74–103. 

39.  Bruce Boone, “Language Writing: The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism,” Soup 2 (1981): 9.

40.  Steve Benson, review of Percentage, by Carla Harryman, Poetry Flash 86 (May 1980): 8. Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, “Letter Exchange on the Above Review,” Poetry Flash 86 (May 1980): 8–9.

41.  Steve Abbott and Steve Benson, “Letter Exchange on the Above Review”: 9.

42.  Steve Benson, As Is (Berkeley: Figures, 1978), 3–4.

43.  Glück, “Caricature,” Soup 4 (1985): 18–28.

44.  Silliman, Ketjack (San Francisco: This, 1978), 23.

45.  Silliman, The Age of Huts (New York: Roof, 1986), 26.

46.  Steve Benson, Blue Book (New York: The Figures/Roof, 1988), 130.