Editorial note: This interview was conducted in New York City on September 27, 2010. Bruce Andrews writes, “Dennis did the painstaking transcription of this interview; I massaged it a teeny bit, mostly deleting a few ‘you know’s and ‘so’s & adding a few commas & dashes to capture something of the rhythm, but keeping it as loose & informal as it was, rather than trying to jazz it up or make it more official or impressive. I’m happy to leave in the more relaxed instances of ‘gonna’ & ‘wanna’ & ‘gotta’ along with my idiosyncratic valorizing of the ‘aerated’ em dashes (with a little space before & after). This was a lovely afternoon for me; many thanks to Dennis for all his enthusiasm during his month in the USA as a self-identified ‘fan boy’ — the breath of fresh air still reverberates!” — Katie L. Price
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: Many thanks, Bruce, for inviting me and taking the time to do this interview. So, let’s jump right in. Before going into the more theoretically-inclined questions, would you mind giving us a short rundown of how you got involved with the downtown New York art scene and became a driving force of so-called ‘Language Poetry’ in the 1970s?
Bruce Andrews: That’s a huge autobiographical question. But … a couple of short things. I had some connection with that scene before I moved to New York, when I was in graduate school in the early 70s. Some of that is represented in my editing of the special issue of Toothpick, Lisbon, and the Orcas Islands in 1973 — and that is up on the web now as part of Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site, so you can take a look at some of what I was interested in, in 1973. I came to New York City in 1975. I started writing in 1969, and began to be in touch with some of the people that, later in the 1970s, came to be called the ‘Language Poets.’ I was in correspondence with them in the early ’70s. So, in the early ’70s I’m going to grad school, I’m fascinated by avant-garde art activities in a variety of fields, and I’m starting to write and publish, and I’m in touch now with people that would form this phenomenon a little bit later. So I come to New York in 1975, partly as a coincidence (that was the only professorial job that I got … at that age I wasn’t just moving to New York in order to be in New York). It was just a stroke of incredible luck for me that I got a teaching job here [Fordham University] in political science. So, I moved to town still with this fascination about what was going on in music in a variety of genres, what’s going on in theatre, what’s going on in dance, what’s going on in the visual arts … and dropped right in a hotbed of incredible activity in all those fields. And that interest in those other fields shaped my conception — as you can see a little bit in the Toothpick issue — of what would be a relevant kind of literary writing.
I’ve said this before in interviews, but when what we were calling, in our correspondence, ‘Language-centered Writing’ started to become known outside of the immediate participants it came to be known as ‘Language Poetry.’ And I have said before that, to me, it was the P-part rather than the L-part that I thought was a problem. I wasn’t really thinking that we were helping to create a new sub-genre of poetry, but that we were creating a new formulation or articulation of a type of arts activity that would have some parallels with what was going on in these other art fields. And for a while in New York, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it seemed possible to sustain a community of people in the literary world that were also in touch — in close, intimate touch — with what was going on with people of the same age in these other art forms and that we could form a kind of multi-arts community. So, you know, a few of us were closer in touch with things going on in the music world, in the dance world, in the theater world, etc., and those people came to our readings and were interested in our texts to some extent. But that was hard to sustain; it didn’t really last, and after a while it became clear that whatever interest some of us had, or that I had, for instance, in these other fields, was not going to result in our work getting any kind of outreach. The outreach was likely to come from the poetry world.
PennSound has replaced the low-res version of these tapes, so now possible to see in full-screen. The program took place at the Whitney’s Philip Morris space, across from Grand Central terminal in New York.
Last fall, I asked Jacket2 if I could review Joel Bettridge’s Reading as Belief. The book closely considers the relationship between acts of faith and the practice of reading, and both are processes that are of primary interest to me. Reading and belief are similar, Bettridge claims, because both entail vulnerability, willed credulity, and commitment. As such, both reading and faith are systems of valuation that make demands on those who subscribe to their terms. Through a series of coincidences and mutual friends, Bettridge and I met electronically. I had already written the following summary of the book. This served as a starting point for our conversation and so I include it and Bettridge’s first response here. The questions and dialogue that ensued follow this summary of the book. —Elizabeth Robinson
Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman’s tape for an unrealized transcript captures a wealth of improvisatory high-level thinking about particulars of contemporary American class structure and poetry. The result manifests a sustained thread about social formations in contemporary American poetry with strong relevance for the present. Near the end, a phone call is received from Ray DiPalma clarifying details about the group reading of their collectively authored LEGEND four days later.
Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman Bernstein’s apartment, New York City, March 6, 1981 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s interview with Susan Howe captures their early poems and thinking about Language writing poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was just over a year old with Number 7 to be published that month. I will investigate this formative moment for the ideas that continue to be crucial, that were effaced, and that enter into productive crisis in the present.
Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein Susan Howe’s WBAI-Pacifica radio show, New York City, March 14, 1979
Andrews and Bernstein sketch the by-now-familiar program of Language writing, an invocation of writing’s “modernist project […] an exploration of the intrinsic qualities of the media […] which from our point of view is language […] not some concocted verse tradition […] through academic discourse and […] book reviewers in The New York Times.” The “repression of knowledge” through such academic and publishing institutions contributes to a deficiency in “people’s awareness of what poetry and what other writing forms there are.” In addition, Andrews and Bernstein interrogate the very idea of genre in writing and propose “less intrinsic reasons for [the novel, philosophy, and poetry to be] separate than for music to be thought of as separate from painting or painting from writing.”
This photograph of Bruce Andrews, Michael Lally, and Ray DiPalma was taken by Elizabeth DiPalma in early September 1975, in Michael Lally's then Sullivan Street apartment. The print of the original photo, now among Ray DiPalma's papers at Yale, is 8"x10". We at J2 are grateful to Ray DiPalma for making this reproduction available to us and our readers.
I just now listened (for what must be the third time overall) to a triple reading given by Andrews, Lally, and DiPalma together at the Ear Inn in New York on November 10, 1977. DiPalma read “Exile,” “It makes of nonsense,” and “I am in the mountains,’ and also a 4-minute section from The Birthday Notations. Andrews read mostly from Moebius (published as a chapbook much later, in 1993); one of these Moebius poems became the focus of an episode of PoemTalk ("Center"). As for what Lally read that night, I'm sorry to say that PennSound's Lally page needs work; it's not clear which recording is the November '77 reading (we'll work on fixing it).
One day, on the street, Bruce Andrews found several thousands of pages of scripts from the soap opera, As the World Turns. He then created an untitled piece we might call “This Is the 20th Century” (using its first line). It was apparently written to serve as a preface or blurb for a book by Johanna Drucker (Dark Decade). Andrews uses phrases from the TV scripts and also some language from Drucker. He read this stray-ish piece at an Ear Inn reading in 1994. Here is the recording — from PennSound's Bruce Andrews page where this '94 reading has been segmented (thanks to the talented Jenny Lesser). The blurb did not appear on or in Drucker's Dark Decade and remains unpublished.