Commentaries - July 2012

Convolution Journal for Critical Experiment

including my 2007 interview with Nie Zhenzhao (excerpted here)

With its disarming in medias res layout Convolution is tyring to reinvent the print periodical. First issue includes Giorgio Agamben and Alessandro Petti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Bruce Andrews, Alexander Barnett, Bob Brown, Tony Chakar, Sarah Crowner, Drew Daniel, Jeff Dolven, Melissa Dunn,  Craig Dworkin, Jesko Fezer, Michael Golston, Robert Hardwick Weston, Christian Hawkey, Athena Kirk, Gareth Long, Rosalind Morris,  Andrew Schelling, Eliza Slavet, Nancy Tewksbury, and editors Paul Stephens &  Jenelle Troxell.

A 2007 interview I did with Nie Zhenzhao and published in Chinese translation in Foreign Literature Studies (Vol. 29, No. 2 April 2007) is also included. Here is an excerpt, mostly focussing on Parsing (1976, Eclipse digital edition, 2006), but also on some of the poems in Controlling Interests (1980).

NIE: Generally speaking, the poetry you focused on in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E puts more emphasis on written (visual) dimension of poetry than on the spoken (oral) dimension. Maybe this partly accounts for why you have collaborated with visual artists. However, in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, which you edited, you emphasize the sound of poetry. Does this reflect a shift in your own approach?

BERNSTEIN: I think as I began to perform my work more and more, and also as I organized more and more readings and poetry events, I began to feel that I had not sufficiently addressed the performative and sound dimensions of the poetry with which I was most engaged. Also I became interested in sound not as a natural extension of the written word but as a discrepant element, another layer of the complex that is the poetics work. And my major project of the last two years, working with Al Filreis, has been to develop a large archive of digital recordings of poetry readings, available for free at PennSound (

Then how do you think of the relationship between poetry and other forms of art?

I remain a die-hard formalist. I think there are things specific to poetry that can only be done in poetry.

In your “30-second lecture” called “What Makes a Poem a Poem?” you reply to the question in your title by saying: “It’s not rhyming words at the end of a line. It’s not form. It’s not structure. It’s not loneliness. It’s not location. It’s not the sky. It’s not love. It’s not the color. It’s not the feeling. It’s not the meter. It’s not the place. It’s not the intention. It’s not the desire. It’s not the weather. It’s not the hope. It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the death. It’s not the birth. It’s not the trees. It’s not the words. It’s not the things between the words”

The piece ends, at precisely 30 seconds, with the punch line, “It’s the timing!,” which is also the punch line of a famous remark about comedy: it’s not the joke it’s the timing. …

But what is, really, a poem? Would you mind giving a definition to poetry?

Verbal art?
          David Antin has a marvelous answer to your question, relying on the American adolescent sexual metaphor of going to first base, second base, and so on. He says, poetry is kind of writing that goes all the way.
          I would say what makes a poem a poem is the context; that we choose, or are cued, to read or hear a work a verbal construct as poem. It’s not a honorific term that distinguishes verbal art from something lesser. Bad and boring poems are still poems; song lyrics, great or terrible, meant to be heard as part of a song, are not.

 In “Sentences,” the first section of Parsing, your 1975 book that is collected in Republics of Reality 1975-1995, you start each line of each poem with “they,” “I,” “you,” “it,” or “was.” Why do you deliberately choose the same word to start a line and to adopt such grammatical structure? In the conventional structure of the poetic line, poets try to avoid recurrence of a same word in the beginning of all lines in a stanza for the esthetic variance of reading. So why do you intentionally use the same word to start a line, or to compose a stanza, for example, the stanza consisting of “contextual disruption,” which could be, to me, a feature of your poems?       

 Parsing is one of my earliest works. The title refers to breaking sentences or phrases into their syntactic parts, itself a form of contextual disruption. In Parsing all the words begin with a pronoun, some of which can operate as “shifters,” that is they take on different references depending on the context. There are two sources for “Sentences,” both oral histories: Working by Studs Terkel and Yessir, I’ve Been Here a Long Time: Faces and Words of Americans by George Mitchell. I lifted and arranged lots of those “I” and “You” sentences from these vernacular speech transcriptions, and placed them amidst mostly sentences I generated myself. The final poem, numbered 1 & 2 is all first lines of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
            In this work I was interested in repetition as a form of reiteration, insistence in Gertrude Stein’s sense. There is also a relation to the minimalist music of Steve Reich and also his own interest in repetitive and highly rhythmical chanting. One of Ron Silliman’s most influential early essays, “The New Sentence” discusses the non-syllogistic logic of this kind of sentence organization. In “Sentences” I was interested in getting to a basic unit of speech and then using that to make rhythmic compositions. Much of the content of the sentences is plaintive, so that is part of the pull for me. A kind of collective plaint of despair or melancholy or disappointment or separation, which is something that threads through my work and connects it, perhaps unexpectedly, to fado, blues, mourning prayers, or other forms of lament that also use repetition.

 In “Space and Poetry” in Parsing, and in many other poems, we can conclude that you fracture discursive language by rearranging phrases into lines that together produce non-grammatical sentences. It seems that you divide a sentence in parts and then reconfigure these parts. Here is a sentence in “Space and Poetry” as example, “space, and poetry dying and transforming words, before arbitrary, period locked with meaning and which preposterousness” which you divide it into 5 lines. I wonder how to understand their special poetic quality of this fractured sentence. Could you give me some hints?

 This is phase two of Parsing, after “Sentences.” You could see it as a kind of analytic cubism. Apparently prior sentences (no original set of sentences is provided) are divided (cut-up) into component parts and these are opened up into a field layout (not flush left, spread over the whole page). The lines form a kind of music of changing or shifting parts that cannot be parsed on a linear level. This opens the page out to something that is not a two-dimensional Euclidean space but a curved space, a space with n-dimensionality. Let me now reinsert the space you deliberately subtracted for your question, so you can feel the torque:

                                                space, and poetry

                                    dying and transforming words, before

                                                                                    arbitrary, period locked

                                                with meaning” and which

                        preposterousness. Still

In some poems such as “Roseland”(Parsing), “Of course ….” and “St. McC.” (Shade),“Some nights” and “Type” (Stimga), you intentionally omit  punctuation marks just like James Joyce did in Ulysses to express for expression of stream-of-consciousness. Of course, there are many poems composed by other poets without punctuation marks, but their grammatical structure is clear for us to read and interpret. Compared with them, it seems that you fracture the regular grammatical structure to compose lines to create new meaning, which could be difficult for readers to get. What is your aesthetic purpose to use this technique to compose poems? How can we get your exact meaning of a poem without punctuation marks?

There is no exact meaning, no prior meaning which I transform into verse, no single or paraphrasable meaning for the reader to grasp. A structure, or perhaps better to say an environment is created for the reader to respond, to interenact.  This is frustrating if you are reading to try to extract a meaning, pleasurable if you are comfortable trolling within meanings.
            By the way, “Roseland” has as its source some phrases from David Antin’s “the sociology of art” from talking at the boundaries, so it’s cut-up from Antin’s transcription of his original “spoken” talk. That’s a very specific example of the kind of speech/writing tension or disjunction I was interested in for Parsing.

From some of your poems I realize that you admire irregular arrangement of lines or like to fracture sentences to form stanzas and poems. For example, you break the sentences in the poems such as “The Hand Gets Scald but the Heart Grows Colder” in Controlling Interests and “The Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalization” in Rough Trades into many parts and then organize them into a new poetic form. Do you have rules when you fracture a sentence and rearrange the fractured sentence? What kind of poetic art do you strive for?

Mostly I work intuitively, arranging the words on the page so as to maximize the ping and pong of word against word, phrase against phrase, to intensify the visceral verbal sensation, to find sense, indeed make sense with what is at hand. Many of the poems that may seem to be rearrangements of prior texts – cut-ups –are actually freely composed, though sometimes they have gone through a series of erasures and rewritings and rearrangements of my own original seed text. The formal prototype for the poems you mention is “Asylums” (Islets/Irritations), which is one of my first poems, from 1974. In that poem I cut out  snippets from a source text, Erving Goffman’s Asylum, mostly focusing on the words just before and after the period, in other words the interstitial dynamics of the text, the literal place of transition from one sentence to the next. Another way to look at it would be to say I took a prior text and erased most of it, or that the only parts “left” are the nodal points around the sentences. So then the process resembles sculpting from a slab of stone, creating the work by means of chiseling away at the surface of the rock. These poems, then, appear to have gone through a process of textual erosion. “The Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitlalization” is the most eroded of these works. The title comes from Max Weber’s turn-of-the-20th century sociological study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which emphasized the connection between accumulation, capitalism, and the Protestant ethic. The poem enacts an erosion of accumulated meanings or perhaps simply a turn away from a semiotics of accumulated meaning. “The Hand Gets Scald but the Heart Grows Colder” is somewhat more typical of my work from Controlling Interests and the period immediately following, which has a mix of eroded (or erased) textual fragments, aphorism, lists, metacommentaries, lyric strains, instructions, found language, commands, &c; in other words a collage of various elements, which are fused together through thematic, rhythmic, associational, and structural dynamics, most of which are come upon – that is, just made up – in the process of writing the poem.

Oana Avasilichioaei's 'Beasts'

Oana Avasilichioaei’s We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn 2012) proposes a linguistic wilderness where her last book — Feria (Wolsak & Wynn 2008) — laid out a “poempark.” The wilderness we are returned to here is the one formed by language on the edge of wildernesses long gone—the liminal space of fairy and folk tale, where we stare back at the animals we try to deceive ourselves we no longer are. Voice drifts into voice, language into and out of language—words are birdcall in dense forest where a strange chimera called the Wolfbat (who joins other “characters” — the Tyrant, Dawn, a “maiden”) inhabits a “culture of creatures” and “pastures the pulsing of nontales.”

There is much to say about this book — its play with folk tale tropes and traditions, the wisps of narrative that dissolve into thickets of opaque language, its staging of gender and sexuality, reeking with hybridity, multiplicity and an animal desire to, well, fuck any and all comers. There’s also the book’s fascinating “beastly taxonomies” that graph aspects of a surreal world surrounding and sometimes intersecting with the book in hand, the interruption of a book-within-the-book (“Spelles”), complete with different paper stock, and the way the book’s serial poems entangle and interrupt each other (somewhat reminiscent, structurally, of Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia).

But what I want to comment on, briefly, here is Oana’s “we” — in her book’s title, the title poem, and, generally, its use to hypothesize an impossible inclusivity. First, I’m going to add a passage from a talk I gave on Feria at the Kootenay School of Writing, back in 2010.

* * *

I am taking this opportunity to sum up and re-assess what have been my primary concerns as a poet and critic. Ultimately, I think these come down to a sense of the poem as a collective and social endeavour. This of course runs counter to the all too familiar sense of the poem as the domain of self-expression, introspection, individuation and the prolific poetic “I.” Poetry, like everything else, has evolved in the shadow of capitalism over the past few centuries, and it has often provided a stage for the owning subject to parade and practice. But poetry can very easily become the stage for other subjectivities, other senses of the subject — “flickering subjectivities,” as Rita Wong and Larissa Lai call them. We once again arrive at the relational: “language” — this is Lisa Robertson — “gives you and I to one another” — it is “the possibility of subjectivity,” which occurs between us and is only ever shared by us.

Touchstones for my understanding of poetry as a collective and social endeavour have been Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “being singular plural” and Marx’s early idea of the human as a “species being.”

Nancy: “Being could not speak of itself except in this unique manner: ‘we are.’ The truth of the ego sum is the nos sumus; this ‘we’ announces itself through humanity for all the beings ‘we’ are with. For existence in this sense of being-essentially-with, as a being whose essence is the with.”

I am interested in Oana’s “we,” which is the dominant pronoun in Feria. Her “poempark” forms a “garden of we,” which “anchors we to we.” “We collect and we are / collected into we.” In the poempark, near the book’s close, we find “one hand in the embrace of another hand citoyennes between us.” Here, in the space of Robertson’s “possibility of subjectivity,” the social itself — a feminine citizenship (“citoyennes”) — is found “between” the components of Oana’s “we.” In the book’s last lines the pronominal components of the collective again address the between:

Shall I fortress you
in my arms, you an uncertain ruin.

Here is the social lyric: an “I” addressing a “you” proposes a transformation — from “ruin” to “fortress” — via their unity as “we.”

* * *

We, Beasts is very much a continuation and further development of Oana’s concerns in Feria, as it is also an extension of the collaborative contexts of Expeditions of a Chimera (2009 — co-authored by Erin Mouré): the documentary, translation, polyvocality, space. The utopian gesture of this poetry is its call for, and instantiation of, a broad inclusivity via the ever-mutable instabilities of the linguistic sign. We, Beasts, like Feria, builds towards an explosive celebration of the first person plural pronoun. But where Feria imagined something of an interpersonal social space, the “we” in the title poem “We, Beasts” is an expression of “species being” (I’m extending Marx’s use of the term here, considerably!) — of what is common to all living beings, the imaginal space of the biosphere itself.

Nature turns to we, admits
to we nature’s horse, admits
to shedding the swaddles.
No trap this time, no saddle, the we unmineable
only the horse of nature.

The “horse” is a liminal being, and makes a number of appearances throughout We, Beasts. One of those other species human beings have long collaborated with, thus both connecting us to and at once (arguably, damagingly) separating us from other animals, the horse populates many folk tales and our earliest myths and legends. “Horse,” in “We, Beasts,” comes to represent all “the we unmineable,” the indivisible world (common, unownable, un-mine-able) that is no one species “resource,” but all a complex abundance.

Admittedly, I am giving only one small example here. But such instances of liminal “beastliness” are scattered all over this book. Where there are animals here, where there are fairy and folk tale creations limning the space between the human and “the rest” of the creaturely world, they are all instances of “cleaving”: holding us to, and marking our erroneous separation from, the beasty roar of all species being. The title itself marks the crucial caesura with a comma: “We, Beasts” — we who are beasts, and we who stand outside beastliness, recognizing our belonging there. Sometimes that connection/separation is a lament. Sometimes it is a frenzied (re)merger (“we remain here in the solitude of identity”). Sometimes it is a dialogue.

I will end with one other poem — from a sequence of “songs” dispersed throughout the text.

Song of the Hunt

—Tell me, where do you stir, my elk, where do you stir
between these hills’ torpid poles?

—Are you trying to catch me, hunter, with your sing?

—Tell me, where do you tame, my horse, where do you
tame in your gallop?

—Are your trying to verse me, hunter? Green the gorse
of these mounts?

—Tell me, where do you dawn your white fur my wolf,
where does the snow roam you?

—Only the elk seem silent in these mountains hunter,
and the water slopes furious and violent.


Never will the winds’ heights be my heights, never will
the elk or the horse or the wolf know me, never will the
water fury my hands the way it furies their hooves.

Mark Weiss: Nineteen short poems for Bill Bronk, plus one

William Bronk and Mark Weiss


Based on the known,
imagining the confluence,
one hopes for a florid excitement, a spastic
flailing, some kind of


Are there any here
but us chickens?
Have there ever been?


The season arrives with a clamor of geese.
And at the end of it.


We note
the unfamiliar sky.


Always and always.
There is this always, that always, there is


Sometimes the poor
can sell their poverty
as if they had chosen it.


Gestures affect instinct accent.


She wore a glass
athletic shoe and left it
at the door, danced off

In a perfect world
all shoes would fit.


The stray dog
wonders about its failings as a dog.
Something about a compact broken.


I have dreamed
an epicure's dream. In the secret life of sleep
it seems I have cancer and will surely die, but
that the doctor says
death will be a wasting away, so eat
while you can, as much
as you can, and I sing, Oh Death where is,
where is thy sting.


We call the ocean Day
and the lover Night.
So Night swims the Day
in search of his love, who floats
before him on a raft of spray.


Christ crowns the Virgin
and virgins marry him.

They content themselves with the possible.

I begin the day with a shriek she said.


It's given to her to dangle a shoe, but for a toe
barefoot in this most formal place.


30 million buffalo 120 million
hooves raising the dust, at times
stampeding in a deafening clatter, at others
a rumble audible for miles.

3 billion pigeons, the noise
of 3 billion pigeons,

the shaking earth disturbing the slumbers of millions in their burrows.

If not strings, then ribbons,
the solar system a pattern of movements.

And who may be King or Queen of the May?


Let down her hair and her eyes
became pools in the forest.

At the end of the hall are three dark doors.

Of love
the danger.


Named for shape.
Named for function.
in any case. As clouds
hold clues
to sky
or water.


On a toy harmonium
she plays the dies irae
to distract the child.

Like a stone across water.
My mind’s like a stone
on water, to sink
one day, tee hee tee hee.


Miss Angularity is very tall
but wears high heels
to make her feet look small.


He tries to imagine her toes,
goes through a series of possibilities, as if
a clue to the invisible.
Surely, he thinks, there's a moral here,
a decision inherent in form.

                            And such
and such was the life of him.


Sometimes an insistent picture presents itself and sometimes

one walks
into and through it like a tracking shot, but it's always
a picture. Even at a moment like this when I summon it what's lost
is the swift melding of things unseen. And sometimes
it's the slow dance
of two and the heat
and cold and a hand
one remembers, does it all
come back does it all
come back to.

Doesn't it all come back to loss and language?

What can be done
in a few words,
what can be done in words.

and words
in deep storage.

Think of the street filled
with extras in storied lives,
for each of whom...
for each of whom in storied lives
in the moments between.

And the smells of these.

The skull's rictus.

These are the marble halls I dreamt I dwelt in.

Add another to the cacophony of voices.
Add another.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: … I had been unsuccessfully trying to find a way back to small poems after years of writing at the other end of baroque, and [re-reading] Bronk had given me a nudge in the right direction, although he probably would have found most of these poems in different ways totally scandalous. At the least, I doubt he would have recognized their relationship to his own.

Bill's work is characterized by extreme care. Metaphors are few and deployed gingerly, and the matter of daily life enters most often just enough to suggest a context. And his concerns are almost exclusively with final things: on the fugitive nature of both the self and any kind of external reality, Being as if lost in the chaos of before the Biblical creation. “What we want is a here with a meaning,” he says in one of his poems, and goes on to demonstrate that we can't have it.

My own work is all about a here. Final things are the givens that I rarely talk about, and meaning is contingent and flexible. I'm perfectly comfortable with this; as a New Yorker diversity is my native language. …

That said, few of these poems dedicated to his practice really attempt to achieve it. Rather, they seem to me to dance around it as a fixed point. It's in fact “Sometimes,” a poem outside the group, that may come closest to Bill's poetry, though longer than all but a few of his, and I've chosen to place it immediately after them, as a sort of envoi.


Colleges Tightening Oversight of Parties for Poetry Recruits

by Mike Freakman

 Buffalo, Nov. 22 (AHP2 News) -- After a series of embarrassing incidents and criminal investigations involving alcohol and theory at recruiting parties for coveted high school poets in recent years, some universities have begun to rewrite the rules for entertaining recruits and are tightening their oversight.

 These generally unofficial parties will reach a peak over the next few weeks as hundreds of high school prospects visit major poetry colleges for two days, trying to decide where to enroll next fall. Some university officials, who had been criticized for failing to supervise the parties, acknowledge that they felt compelled to take action after being embarrassed by misbehavior associated with recruiting parties.

 Earlier this year, for example, the University of Alabama was placed on probation by the National Collegiate Poetry Association (N.C.P.A.) for violations that included inviting theorists onto campus to entertain high school poets at parties. A poetry recruit on an official visit to the University of Florida was initially charged with plagiarism and disorderly thinking two years ago for an incident that occurred after he attended a party with heavy theory.

 At the University of Michigan, a coveted high school senior was entertained by Michigan poets with alcohol and theorists in a Detroit hotel suite six years ago. When the university learned about the party, Michigan's president felt compelled to apologize to the recruit's parents.

 At Michigan State University, visiting high school prose poets were entertained by theorists at a Detroit nightclub and other recruits taken to a casino, where they practiced writing chance-derived works, leading the N.C.P.A. to put the prose poetry program on probation for two years in 1998.

 With the image of college poetry having been tarnished in recent years by a number of incidents in which poets were charged with plagiarism and copyright infringement, some critics contend that recruiting parties have become a particularly insidious part of the problem.

"These parties are a major problem," said Thames Dumberthanthat, president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996. "And I can't say for certain, but I think they are a problem at a number of universities, mainly because these are high school kids away from home and there is a total lack of supervision and structure. I was shocked when I heard about how they were handled. They basically turn these kids loose and hope a great poem will come out."

Though the parties are usually unofficial, they are often part of high school poets’ N.C.P.A.-sanctioned two-day visits to campuses. The high school seniors usually get to meet critics and poets, go to readings, and attend classes. At night, they are usually entertained by college poets hoping to impress them.

Recruiting parties can be harmless fun, but they can also cross the line. Players sometimes provide wine and theory to visiting high school seniors, according to interviews with former poets, critics, law enforcement officials and prose writers who have attended recruiting parties. Sometimes, too, these people say, the older poets arrange for recruits to have access to poems by George Bowering and David Bromige. “These kids are not prepared for the effect of this kind of poetry, which is provided without any historical context or information about the importance of Canadian national identity for both poets,” said Dan Joyisme, President of the League for Poetic Improvement.

While the parties carry some legitimacy as part of university-sanctioned campus visits, they are seldom supervised by university officials and often take place off campus. As such, critics say, these parties carry murky expectations for those who attend, often in a raucous atmosphere with sensibilities dulled by wine or metaphor. “The long range problem,” said Mr. Dumberthanthat, “is that poetic intoxication will lead these young people to think of poetry as a free pass to avoid serious pursuit of college athletics.” He noted that colleges with Division I poetry programs often lowered athletic standards for top poets in an effort to keep them enrolled.

In the past, many university officials have argued that they were not responsible for misbehavior that occurred late at night in unofficial settings. But many law enforcement officials, community officials and leaders of poetry improvement groups contended that the colleges were at fault for failing to properly supervise poets and their high school guests.


November 22, 2002. Posted to the Poetics List.